We Are Not the Only Ones Who Think Child Car Seats Don’t Work Well

There is a very disturbing report in the new Consumer Reports about child car seats. Here’s an excerpt:

You’d think that in a car crash, infants in their cozy car seats would be the most protected passengers of all. But you’d be wrong, our tests reveal.

Cars and car seats can’t be sold unless they can withstand a 30-mph frontal crash. But most cars are also tested in a 35-mph frontal crash and in a 38-mph side crash. Car seats aren’t.

When we crash-tested infant car seats at the higher speeds vehicles routinely withstand, most failed disastrously. The car seats twisted violently or flew off their bases, in one case hurling a test dummy 30 feet across the lab.

Sad to say, I am not very surprised by this report. (You can read other accounts of the testing here and here.) When we wrote about child car seats, a lot of people responded angrily to our assertion that the seats do not provide much benefit, if any, over lap and shoulder belts for children over two years of age. But of all the arguments, not a single person challenged the central fact that the data seem to support: car seats, as currently built and used, don’t work nearly as well as every parent, every cop, every emergency-room doctor would like to think that they work. And the Consumer Reports testing confirms this to a rather frightening degree.

[Addendum: I should have specified, as one commenter below pointed out, that C.R. tested rear-facing infant seats; we argued against the efficacy of front-facing seats for children 2 and up, since the lap-and-shoulder-belt alternative for infants isn't at all practical. That said, our argument is hardly weakened -- and perhaps is strengthened -- when you consider that even the rear-facing infant seats, for which there is no alternative, failed the C.R. tests so badly.]

One of the most disturbing assertions in the CR report is that European car seats perform better than American models, which suggests that as much as Americans believe they are demanding superior safety, they are in fact getting inferior quality. And when it’s your child who stands to suffer — well, that’s pretty disturbing.

When we wrote the above-linked article on car seats, I had a really hard time finding a crash-test lab that would let me come in and run our own basic tests. All I wanted to do was to submit a child crash-test dummy to one frontal crash in a car seat and one frontal crash in a lap-and-shoulder belt. I got the feeling that the labs knew full well that the seats don’t perform anywhere near as well as they’re supposed to.

Finally I found a lab that agreed to run my tests. They wouldn’t let me name the facility, out of fear of losing crash-test business from the seat manufacturers, but the head of the lab told me he was a fan of science and wanted to help us test a simple theory. But then the engineer whose job it was to strap in the dummies and run the tests nearly refused to participate. He told me that it was idiotic — that of course the car seat would perform well, and that if we put one of his expensive dummies in a crash with only a lap and shoulder belt, the dummy would literally be severed in the crash test.

He was wrong, it turned out. The dummy came out of the crash without serious injury. As did the dummy in the car seat. But as Consumer Reports showed, when you put a car seat through a more realistic crash scenario, the results can be horrific.

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  1. XSteveMurphy says:

    Last season’s American Inventor was a terrible show, but it accomplished its goal of finding a single great idea: a baby seat that prevents whiplash and sudden jarring of the baby. The guy who built it (I forget his name) had a baby daughter die in an accident while strapped into her car seat, and so he set out to improve it. His solution is like a gyroscope, the baby sits inside an open-top ball, which is itself inside a second rounded cavity. When there is an impact, the inner sphere spins around some, but the forces are all converted into a spin instead of simple forward inertia, meaning there is no whiplash.

    This of course does not necessarily solve the problem of the seat flying off its base, but hopefully this guy thought of that as well. If anyone knows the status of this product I’d be interested to know it. Last I heard was the day he won American Inventor.

    Side fact for people who watched that show, the lady who made those terrible looking gingerbread-house snow globes, and who did not make it even into the top 12, was on the Food Network the other day on a special episode of Unwrapped for the holidays, still hocking the same product.

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  2. XSteveMurphy says:

    Last season’s American Inventor was a terrible show, but it accomplished its goal of finding a single great idea: a baby seat that prevents whiplash and sudden jarring of the baby. The guy who built it (I forget his name) had a baby daughter die in an accident while strapped into her car seat, and so he set out to improve it. His solution is like a gyroscope, the baby sits inside an open-top ball, which is itself inside a second rounded cavity. When there is an impact, the inner sphere spins around some, but the forces are all converted into a spin instead of simple forward inertia, meaning there is no whiplash.

    This of course does not necessarily solve the problem of the seat flying off its base, but hopefully this guy thought of that as well. If anyone knows the status of this product I’d be interested to know it. Last I heard was the day he won American Inventor.

    Side fact for people who watched that show, the lady who made those terrible looking gingerbread-house snow globes, and who did not make it even into the top 12, was on the Food Network the other day on a special episode of Unwrapped for the holidays, still hocking the same product.

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  3. Mango says:

    Something on this subject that I’ve been waiting to here on is the comparison of the likelihood of children sustaining abdominal injuries when wearing a lap belt as opposed to a child seat. My father, who recently retired after more than 30 years doing accident reconstruction, insists that that is the main benefit of those seats. You earlier op-ed said sensors in your experiment did not provide data for abdominal pressure.

    In an accident, momentum should press the vehicle occupant’s pelvic bone into the lap belt for it to be effective. If the belt is too high (either because the occupant is small, or is wearing the belt incorrectly) the soft abdomen will be pressed into the belt, and the pressure can cause internal organ damage and/or spinal damage if the impact is severe. The pelvic bone is far better able to withstand high pressure than the gut.

    I asked, and my father knows of no supporting statistics, but can offer plenty of anecdotal evidence of this happening from incorrect seatbelt use. Apparently it is more common for women to have this problem than men because of the difference in shape of the hips. The design of booster seats is intended to guide the seatbelt naturally into the correct position relative to the child’s body.

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  4. Mango says:

    Something on this subject that I’ve been waiting to here on is the comparison of the likelihood of children sustaining abdominal injuries when wearing a lap belt as opposed to a child seat. My father, who recently retired after more than 30 years doing accident reconstruction, insists that that is the main benefit of those seats. You earlier op-ed said sensors in your experiment did not provide data for abdominal pressure.

    In an accident, momentum should press the vehicle occupant’s pelvic bone into the lap belt for it to be effective. If the belt is too high (either because the occupant is small, or is wearing the belt incorrectly) the soft abdomen will be pressed into the belt, and the pressure can cause internal organ damage and/or spinal damage if the impact is severe. The pelvic bone is far better able to withstand high pressure than the gut.

    I asked, and my father knows of no supporting statistics, but can offer plenty of anecdotal evidence of this happening from incorrect seatbelt use. Apparently it is more common for women to have this problem than men because of the difference in shape of the hips. The design of booster seats is intended to guide the seatbelt naturally into the correct position relative to the child’s body.

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  5. hbdinwid says:

    This is eye-opening. I thought our seat was safe and that’s a shame because I drive bad. Because of the company’s boasts about safety concerns, it has given me a free pass about driving decisions. No longer. Thank you Consumer Reports

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  6. hbdinwid says:

    This is eye-opening. I thought our seat was safe and that’s a shame because I drive bad. Because of the company’s boasts about safety concerns, it has given me a free pass about driving decisions. No longer. Thank you Consumer Reports

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  7. wesleyb41 says:

    I sent this to my sister who has an 18 month-old son and is due in June with another. Let’s hope these companies will begin to provide better quality seats for the little ones.

    Do the European seats meet US requirements? If Americans bought theirs from the UK, the US companies would be forced to improve their items.

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  8. wesleyb41 says:

    I sent this to my sister who has an 18 month-old son and is due in June with another. Let’s hope these companies will begin to provide better quality seats for the little ones.

    Do the European seats meet US requirements? If Americans bought theirs from the UK, the US companies would be forced to improve their items.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0