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.


freakincali

One (like egretman) could easily argue, that freedom to do whatever (like taking risks) is a basic human right and that all the concerns about safety and all the 'silly' warnings on appliances are unnecessary. Through this twisted logic, one could agree, thinking that a lack of safety warnings could serve as a return to Darwinism for humans. Without safety warnings, perhaps those whose intelligence genes aren't quite up to par (drunk drivers, back of pickup standers) would have their genes weeded out of the general population before they procreate (one would hope). As things stand, stupid people breed earlier, and at a faster rate than smart people. But I'm getting off-topic and it's too easy to make fun of purists from the state that gave us a C-average president.

Back in the real world, freedom is great, but it ends when that freedom puts *other people at risk*. Unfortunately, egretman either doesn't understand causation/logic (hey, using his logic, everyone who has gotten cancer has eaten vegetables, veggies must be cancerous) or he's being sarcastic. I hope for his sake it's the latter. In any case, freedom to take risk if it's your own life might be okay, but freedom to take the risk of other people's lives (like *your own children*) is not. While 'traditional' Texans might like their freedom the way it used to be, the world doesn't / shouldn't revolve around them (or New Yorkers for that matter.)

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egretman

Precisely. Except I disagree with that one wrong sentence.

htb

> Freedom to take risk is a basic human right.

Egretman, so long as you're taking ALL the risk, then that's fine. But why should you get to choose to put someone else at risk?

I'm thinking of the skateboarders at the park a short block away from my home. Many of them think helmets are uncool. Fine: if they want to risk spending the rest of their lives with traumatic brain injuries, then that's their choice.

But who do you think has gotten stuck with the $30,000 helicopter ambulance bills so far? Who paid for the fire department to show up when the first one died (yes, DIED!!) because he thought the too-small helmet he precariously balanced on top of his head was close enough to wearing a properly fitted and securely strapped on helmet? Who's paying for his kids' monthly social security check? Who's paying extra taxes so those government disability checks will keep showing up each month? Who's paying for the home health aides? Who's stuck with the bill for the extra rehab and education services?

Our city fines helmet-less skateboarders, but I'm thinking that a $50 fine is the wrong message. I'd like to see it be $50 fine -- plus proof of paid-up health and disability insurance for the next year (and maybe a day of wiping someone else's butt in the brain-injury ward for repeat offenders).

If you're going to say "it's my choice and my risk," then you need to make sure it's really, truly ALL your risk -- not "my fun, and my generous taxpaying neighbors can pay for the rest."

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Minivan_Mama

It is frightening, but true that our precious kiddos are not as safe as they should be in vehicles. While the car seat companies work on fixing those issues, it is important to remind folks that almost 95% of car seats are installed wrong or misused. There is some responsibility that lies with parents or really anyone who drives young kids.

It is so important to get whatever car seat you end up using properly installed and inspected.

For parents who need an step-by-step guide, check out http://www.squidoo.com/howtoinstallinfantcarseat/

It is so important to do what we can to protect our little ones, from the corporate giants down to the Minivan Mamas.

Julie

Re#16

Just to further Veda's comments with regards to weight limits for car seats. Although most people think once their baby is one and 20 lbs, they can turn their child forward-facing, this is not necessarily the case. I have done a ton of research and most child restraint technicians recommend keeping your child rear-facing as long as possible because it is the safest position. When shopping for a convertible car seat, try to buy one that has a weight limit of at least 30 lbs rear facing. In this day and age, many children exceed the 20lb limit far before their first birthday. Not many car seat manufacturers have higher height and weight limits, but I know for sure that Sunshine Kids and Britax do. Yes they can be pricey, but the posted link has crash test footage, and the benefit of rear-facing is indisputable. As for the older children, it is all about belt position, and crash forces distribution. If you take your time to educate yourself on how to choose the right car seat for EACH child (it isn't always what's good for one is good for all), the right fit for your car, and how to use it properly, your children will be safer.

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Paul

Just on the European seats mentioned above, for anyone thinking of travelling in Europe you should see the new EU laws related to child travel safety. I found them here http://www.babystuffhire.com/car_seat_law.php but maybe look for official site.

Interestingly, children up to 13 years of age (or up to a certain weight and height) need to travel in secure child car seats.

tony

By the way, the most common cause for losing one's drivers license in Europe is not for drunk driving, or running red lights, or littering (ok -- you won't lose your license for littering, but for the others you lose it for at least a year). It is for having children in the car without the proper safety equipment. But the proper safety equipment does include a booster seat as in the US, even if they don't show pictures of that on the web pages.

Got a 20 euro ticket in Germany for not wearing my seat belt, driving real slow home from the grocery store. The cop explained that putting it on was proven to be good biceps training, better than going to the gym. Winked at me, and I paid the bill on the spot.

Nicolas Martin

I believe that this draws on the report that Consumer Reports has not retracted. Why doesn't the Times think it has the responsibility to post a retraction of this article based on CR's retraction?

Bob

Well I can t be obusive so I won t say any thing.

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.