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Update

Consumer Reports has added at least 2 new child passenger safety technicians to their staff in recent months, so that is a positive sign that they are taking the criticism of their article to heart and making an effort to run future tests more accurately.

Consumer Reports on Carseats: Controversial or Not?

In their February 2007 issue, Consumer Reports (CR) made some controversial claims regarding the safety of infant seats. In the issue, they tested 12 infant seats in rigorous front and side impact tests and came to the conclusion that only 2 provided good protection overall, while 6 provided good protection when installed with a seat belt.

Federal guidelines (FMVSS 213) mandate that manufacturers perform a 30 mph frontal crash test on their carseats to assure the safety of the seats. This is a very severe crash that is worse than 98% of crashes in the U.S.  A rear-facing carseat is installed on a standardized flat bench seat using a lap-only belt or the lower LATCH anchors; there is no lateral (side impact) test done. Rear-facing carseats are allowed to rotate down to the floor no more than 70 degrees. CR tested these seats using a frontal crash test of 35 mph and a lateral crash test of 38 mph. The test that CR put the carseats through is how new cars are tested; carseats are not designed to perform to this type of crash.

But running carseat crash tests that carseats are not designed for is only going to prove that carseats designed to withstand a 30 mph frontal impact may fail a test at a higher speed.  If these seats were really that bad at keeping our infants safe, we'd be hearing about it far more often than we do.  Crash investigators I talk to on a regular basis don't talk about carseats failing; what I hear about is misuse and failure to use a carseat at all.  Let's deal with the more important issues of misuse and failure to use carseats first.  Yes, we should get seats like the Dorel Eddie Bauer Comfort infant seat off the market, but we can prevent more deaths by making sure seats are installed correctly and children are buckled up in the seats correctly in the first place.

CR is a generalist magazine dealing with generalities. They test and report on everything from ice cream flavors to Medicare packages. Itís similar to seeing a general practitioner when you have a brain tumor. When you need specific information, you should see the expert in the field, not a generalist. CR may be able to find the basics of the issues, but to truly learn about carseats, you should consult a good child passenger safety technician. CRís circle ratings system is an excellent example of this generalizing: the circles show a range within their scoring system, but donít show a specific score (for example, 98 out of 100) or explain how they determined the score. CR often will say that a seat fails one of their tests, but doesnít give specifics on why the seat fails the test. In the February 2007 issue, 8 infant seats failed their LATCH test. How did they fail? Did they over-rotate? Did the LATCH belts snap? CR doesnít say. The magazine is also secretive in its testing procedures. It wonít share where it conducted the tests, doesnít disclose pictures of the setup of the carseats on the bench or when the children/dummies are being buckled in, and sometimes rates models of seats that are difficult to find or are no longer on the market. Even if they are right that some seats have safety issues, how can those issues be addressed by manufacturers or technicians if so little is known about CRís tests?

Past CR carseat reports have recommended the Evenflo Titan as a ďBest BuyĒ in May 2005. Many parents ran out to buy the Titan (a discontinued seat), but found it so difficult to adjust the harness that they ended up throwing it away. Other highly rated seats from the July 2001 issue? The Century 1000 STE and Century 2000 STE. The problem with those seats? Those convertibles only rear-faced to 22 lbs., just 2 lbs. more than infant seat weight limits at that time, the rear-facing belt path was over the childís thighs, and the 2000 STE was a T-shield harness system instead of a 5-point harness, which is considered safest by child passenger safety technicians. The top picks from 2001, the Fisher Price Safe Embrace and Safe Embrace II, were discontinued and difficult to find. How can a reputable magazine recommend discontinued carseats or seats that are so difficult to adjust on a child that parents want to throw them away? Yes, they may test safely in a secret lab, but how safe is it if the harness is kept loose all the time because it canít be adjusted on a daily basis? CR says in their car issues that they test drive the vehicles they rate. It gives them a good feel for how the vehicles perform in a variety of settings. Do they give carseats a trial? No. It certainly would give them a feel for how the seats perform on a daily basis. Iím positive the reviewers would form a different opinion if they had to use the seats on a regular basis for a week.

These reports never take into account important considerations like top harness slot height for forward-facing seats, bottom harness slot height for infant seats, weight limits (both lower for infant seats and upper for the higher weight harnessed seats), how easy the seat is to install, and so on. LATCH was supposed to make it easier for parents to install their carseats, but instead it has created many more problems. Built-in lockoffs have helped reduce the number of installation problems by eliminating the need for a locking clip. That wasnít something CR overtly addressed, but it does profoundly affect safety when the seat is properly installed.

Thatís not to say the magazine reports are all bad. In the past, they've found problems with carseats that have led to recalls. Perhaps theyíve found a couple this time with the Evenflo Discovery and Dorel Comfort infant seats (though technicians have complained about the Dorel Comfort infant seat since it hit the market). CR has brought attention to the need for side impact testing and has made parents aware that thereís more to carseat safety other than just sticking their child into a fabric-covered plastic shell and going along on their merry way. Theyíve made public the problems with the LATCH system; that itís not the panacea due to the lobbying of manufacturers turning rigid LATCH into the belt-type LATCH that most seats have now. Indirectly, CR has brought attention to the fact that some manufacturers do a poor job of labeling their seats. Since news of the February report was released on Thursday, January 4, Iíve received emails and have seen posts on bulletin boards from parents confused about which seat they have. The parents range from those with older toddlers in convertible seats with Eddie Bauer covers who thought they might have the Eddie Bauer Comfort seat listed in the article, to parents with Evenflo seats who had a travel system, but didnít know which seat came with the stroller, to parents with a Graco infant seat who didnít know which seat they had. It shouldnít be this hard.

Even though CR has now retracted their findings on infant seats because the test they ran was similar to being struck in the side by a vehicle going 70 mph, not 38 mph, they still have to hold themselves to high standards. Readers are looking to them for advice and they just aren't the experts in this field. They must have proper methodology that can be replicated by others. Any high school science student learns that in class. CR would do everyone a favor if they'd work with CPS techs to get misuse rates down and kids buckled in correctly instead of creating these fabulous tests that smash seats at tremendous speeds.

If you want to keep your child safe, you will keep him/her rear-facing for as long as possible. Also, your carseat is safe if:

  • It meets current federal guidelines (that is, if you bought it new and itisn't under recall);
  • You install it with less than 1" of movement when you tug at the belt path (rear-facing seats will move more the further away from the belt path you get);
  • The harness is snug as a hug on your child;†
  • You read the carseat instructions AND your vehicle instructions;†
  • You keep your child rear-facing past age 1 AND 20 lbs.; the newest recommendation is to rear-face to the weight limits of the convertible seat or until your childís head is within 1Ē of the top of the convertible carseat;
  • Your child hasn't outgrown the carseat (read the labels and see the FAQ);†
  • You aren't using LATCH in the middle position unless your vehicle manual specifically says you can; and†
  • You tether any forward-facing seat.

For more help with installing your carseat, please see Installing Your Carseat.

To see another opinion on Consumer Reports testing, please visit Car-Safety.org.

Read the editorial issued by Safe Ride News here.