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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.