Car Seat Controversy: Who to Believe?
By now, you've probably heard about the alarming results of Consumer Reports' tests on 12 popular child safety seats. For the first time, CR tested the seats in 35 mph frontal crashes and 38 mph side crashes--the same speed used to crash-test vehicles. CR previously tested the seats in 30 miles per hour crash tests, which is the current federal standard.
Only two seats passed with flying colors: the Graco SnugRide with EPS--expanded polystyrene, a cushioning material--and the Baby Trend Flex-Loc. The seats that failed -- including some CR had previously recommended -- twisted violently or flew off their bases. One sent a dummy hurtling 30 feet across the lab.
Two seats, the Evenflo Discovery and the Eddie Bauer Comfort, perfomed so badly that CR demanded the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration immediately recall them. The Evenflo Discovery failed in a standard 30 mph crash test, and the Eddie Bauer Comfort seat couldn't be installed securely in some cars, CR found.
The findings raised questions on two major fronts:
1. The adequacy of government testing standards for car seats.
2. The adequacy of LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children), the federally mandated attachment system for child car seats that has been around since 2002. LATCH consists of two lower attachements and an upper tether on a child safety seat that anchors and connects with lower anchors and a tether built into a vehicle's back seat. The idea behind it was to standardize the way child safety seats are installed without having to use a seat belt, which don't always provide the most secure fit.
On No. 1: NHTSA says it tried incorporating car seats into frontal and side-crash tests of vehicles, with the idea of coming up with crash-safety ratings for car seats similar to the ones they issue for cars. But NHTSA found those tests yielded little useful information about car-seat safety. So the agency chose to go with "ease of use" ratings instead.
The Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association took a harder line on CR's report saying current standards are just fine, thank you. It cited several organizations, such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, both of which have said retooling car seats to withstand crashes at greater speeds could actually have negative results such as adding to the cost for consumers, making the seats less effective in low-impact crashes, and making them more cumbersome to install--all without making them safer.
(When I tried imagining automakers making the same arguments about building safety features into cars, I have to say the comments came off as odd. Automakers tout safety as part of innovation, and, in their sales pitches, they brag about having the latest side-curtain air bag system or anti-lock brakes. It's strange that car-seat makers don't have the same attitude.)
On No. 2, NHSTA agrees LATCH has problems--just not the same ones. In December, NHTSA released a report that said people were not tethering all the latches or not using LATCH at all because they'd never heard of it.
So where does this leave consumers?
For starters, don't throw away the car seat. Neither CR nor NHTSA wants anyone to go "country" a la Britney and let junior ride in your lap behind the steering wheel.
If you're in the market for a car seat, CR would recommend you buy one of the seats that passed. If you own the Evenflo Discovery or Eddie Bauer Comfort seat, you should try to get a different one.
The manufacturers and NHSTA don't think you need to go that far. The agency, for one, has no current plans to recall either car seat as long as both meet federal standards, which they do, and they can't find any defects in them.
If you have a car seat that fared poorly in CR's tests, and can't afford to replace it with one of the two that passed, you can keep using it provided you get it properly installed. CR recommends you secure the seat with seat belts, not the LATCH system.
By contrast, NHSTA says some seats are better secured using safety belts; some are better secured using LATCH. It's a matter of personal preference.
Until regulators, manufacturers and consumer advocates sort out their differences, consumers will just have to decide whose advice they trust the most.
Whose advice will you take? Consumer Reports'? The manufacturers'? Or NHTSA's?
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