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.


XSteveMurphy

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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Mango

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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hbdinwid

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

wesleyb41

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.

Veda

This actually was reassuring to me. We have used (oh, reads: bought new and then we used) car seats, infant and booster, and thankfully, none had bases that were designed to secure into the vehicle. The seats themselves always were belted directly, with the vehicle-belts.

One had a LATCH system, but our old car didn't have the accomodations for it. I weaseled it such that it took about 30 minutes to remove/reinstall.

Again, reassuring for me. I'd done something right without even being aware of much so! *phwew!*

egretman

Safety ninnies are ruining this country. In Texas, we used to be able to drink and drive and throw the empties out the window.

Then a consultant came up with that "don't mess with Texas" campaign and it has been downhill ever since.

Andy from Houston

I know you are being sarcastic egretman, but drinking definately impairs driving. The Don't Mess With Texas thing is funny though, because I have never met anyone who has actually been cited for littering. My guess is that its more of a marketing campaign.

What is surprising to me is that if car seats are no better than seatbelts, why can't car manufactuers come up with better seatbelts?

Mango said that vertical pressure points are a large part of the reason why seatbelts are not as safe for children. If this is true, why are seatbelts designed as one size fits all in terms of vertical adjustment? Would it really be that hard to design a seatbelt that scales to the height of the person who is strapped in?

sophist

This is surprising to me. The first company to publicize the danger people's babies are in (and its own "cutting edge" improvements) would sell millions of cars in a week.

Isn't it true? What parent could bear to put their baby in their current car, after seeing both graphic and true advertisements against it?

egretman

I know you are being sarcastic egretman

Hey, that wasn't sarcasm that was the truth.

Not only that, but we never had these stupid worthless childseats. We just road in the bed of the pickup, as did every other Texas kid. I don't ever remember being thrown out when my dad crashed. (sure, I almost got hit in the head by a beer can or two, but what the heck)

And another thing, thanks to all these yankees and californicators that have moved into the state, it is now against the law to chain your dog to a tree but not your kid! What's the deal with that?

sophist

Egretman, I don't get where you're coming from. Are you saying these studies aren't accurate and that people's babies aren't at a major risk? Or are you saying that the loss of hardy, tough and carefree Texas attitude is too much of a sacrifice?

kentavos

This was at the very bottom of the CR article.

" Remember that any child car seat is better than no seat at all. "

Not entirely supportive.

Paddy

Isn't there some powerful car seat lobby running the show in D.C. these days? I'm not a parent yet, but about five years ago, a co-worker of mine was talking about how her seven year old daughter rides in a car seat. I laughed thinking that she was just kidding, but she wasn't.

Does the law now require that children have to be in a car seat until a certain age or until they are a certain weight? It seems to me that children are required to be in car seats much longer nowadays. And thus, parents are required to buy more and more car seats to fit their growing children.

nobugme

Prof. Dubner, you are being tricky. The Consumer Reports article is about rear facing INFANT car seats. You were writing about CHILD car seats. The difference, for those who aren't parents, is that infant seats have a base and a seat that snaps in/out. Child seats remain in the car.

The problems that Consumer Reports identifies have mostly to do with the base/seat coupling.

Consumer Reports found that one reason European infant seats are better is that the testing is more realistic. Some European seats use a "foot" that braces the base against the car floor. However, the US test for infant car seats uses a test with no car floor. These European tests would fail the US test. See http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/babies-kids/child-car-booster-seats/car-seats-2-07/european-models/0207_seats_euro.htm

crquack

The worrying point, at least for me, of all this, is the reluctance of a crash test lab to perform the test for fear of losing business. What does this mean for the crash test results in general? Are they "tweaked" to please the manufacturers?

Lo

I have two kids under 4 and own 4 different car seats. I worked for an airbag company for 5 years and watched many many crash test films. My conclusion: rather than depending on car seats, the road conditions, the skill and patience of other drivers, and my own reflexes, I actively try to minimize the amount of time my kids are at risk by choosing a day care and other activities as close as possible to home.

Veda

Paddy (#12) - Actually, the last research I'd paid close attention to suggested that infants be rear-facing to 1 year AND 20 lbs. Issues came up because some people thought the "and" was an "or" but no - due to internal development, the term is specificly "and." From one year to 40 lbs, kids were to be in five-point, forward facing seats. (Along came "convertibles" - rear-facing to 20lbs, forward to 40, sometimes 80 lbs.) Then boosters began being rated to 80 lbs, (roughly 8 yrs old) being used from the 40-80 pound marks without 5-point harnesses, but rather as "seat-belt placement" devices, keeping the vehicle's belt in proper position for a child-size body.

If there's something new, I'm not aware of it.
Oh, and I remember the start of the "Kids under twelve ride in the backseat!" campaign.

When I was a kid, I often fell asleep in the backseat, where I could stretch out nicely. (Turns out totally relaxed kids in a backseat with a drunk driver actually suffer fewer injuries in crashes for their lack of tensing up in the moment.) I got lucky, I guess.

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digimom

I'm so tired of hearing people say how they road in the back of trucks, or never wore a seatbeat or their mom held them in their lap or they drove the car sitting on dad's lap. I'm tired of hearing that it was okay to drink and drive, it was okay for pregnant moms to smoke. These people survived in SPITE of all of that, not BECAUSE they were unsafe. Good GRIEF. egretman gives the rest of us Texans a bad name.

My mother was in the habit of letting my kids ride walking around her van, or sitting in the very back on the little plastic shelf in the trunk. She would only do this from the daycare to my house (half a mile) or the from the park to her house (quarter of a mile), or through the parking lot. My husband condoned this and did similar but letting our oldest (4 at the time) ride in the front seat next to him for short trips. I was so frustrated with both of them and felt like a safety freak insisting that the kids be buckled.

About two years ago, I picked up the kids from daycare and headed home the usual way. The daycare and my house, within half a mile of each other, are in a relatively peaceful neighborhood. Yet halfway home, a gal ran a stop sign and the resulting crash completely totaled my van. All three kids were buckled properly - the youngest nearly a year and the oldest nearly five. None of us were seriously hurt - I had a cut on my leg and that was it. This was a quarter of a mile from my house. Going 30 miles an hour. Had my children not been buckled, I know they would have been seriously hurt - tossed and turned and thrown about.

My mother came to meet us at the wreck. She had booster seats for the older two, but she hadn't loaded up the carseat for the baby. "Just sit with him on your lap. It's just right down the street." She did not see the irony in that, and watched helplessly as I walked home, limping, carrying my nearly one-year old on my hip.

I'm glad, and frustrated to read this article. Glad to know now, especially since my nearly three year old HATES the carseat and I can be reassured that the booster seat that aligns the belt properly across him is just as good. But I'm frustrated to think that I was possibly putting my kids in more harm the last seven years.

FWIW, I know have a real world experience that gives me the fodder for both my mother and my husband so that I can be the safety freak about the kids. They do NOT ride without seatbelts no matter HOW close the destination with the only exception being the church parking lot from one end to the other.

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egretman

I would just like to remind everyone, that beers don't kill people. People kill people.

Ahhhh.....to feel the wind in my face again while standing in the the back of a pickup.....that's it....I'm moving to Mexico where freedom is truly appreciated...

smili

By brother and I also grew up riding in the beds of pickups when we wer kids (in the 70s/early80s - I'm 36 now).

Recently my Dad told of a grade-school friend that died while being thrown from the back of pickup in an accident traveling in the same manner.

You takes your chances.

egretman

But people are killed everyday with their seat belts on. So does that mean that seat belts kill?

Cities pass laws that bicyclists must wear helmets. But many more lives would be saved if motorists wore helmets. Riding in a car is dangerous, not bicycling.

Freedom to take risk is a basic human right.