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Child Seats: Are They Safe?

By Rstaib Posted : 03/12/2009

Car crashes top the list of causes of death and injury for American children. It's not surprising that kids are injured when car seats aren't used properly – or at all – but a new report shows that even kids securely fastened in properly-installed car seats could be at risk.

Car Seat Crash Tests Raise Concerns
Chicago Tribune reporter, Patricia Callahan, recently pored over thousands of pages of unpublished crash reports from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and found serious safety issues with many car seat brands. 66 seats were examined by the NHTSA as part of a separate research project, and nearly half either exceeded set injury limits in some results or separated from the base that serves as an anchor for the seat. Unfortunately for parents, the results were not publicized until last week.

This report highlights potential flaws in the current safety standards for car seats. Some people even allege that the NHTSA was negligent in failing to report these results, because the information could have helped parents select safer seats. We expect that clearer standards and more information will result from the public reaction to this new information, especially since Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has promised a comprehensive review of standards and more transparency in the test results.

What Made This Test Different?
Part of the problem with testing child seats is the variety of combinations resulting from the mixture of different models of cars and car seats. This makes it hard to test every possible setup, so current standards specify testing on a device called a bench sled that has no front seats or doors – and at a lower speed than normal NHTSA car crash tests. The reason normal car crash tests (which do not involve safety seats) are conducted at a higher speed is to determine the safety rating of a car. Each car must meet minimum safety standards to be sold; the safety (or "star") rating of a car reflects the amount of safety the car provides above the minimum standard.

Should I Worry? Why or Why Not?
For safety seats, there is no safety rating at this time, so each seat is simply certified as meeting the minimum standard. The NHTSA claims that the current test standards simulate conditions found in over 99% of real-world crashes, and that every car seat sold meets these standards. This new research project, conducted at a speed higher than most crashes, produced stresses on the car seats far higher than those of the normal test, since the force grows exponentially as the speed increases.

It's tough to say exactly what the recent test results mean, but there's no data to support the idea of a large increase in the number of deaths involving properly-restrained children in newer car seats. Until the NHTSA or manufacturers release a definitive statement or data, it's too soon to panic. However, it's likely that safety ratings for car seats will appear soon because of the interest the results generated, giving parents more information about which seats are safer.

What Can You Do?
Parents, parents-to-be, and family members interested in child car seats are rightly concered about what this information means and how it affects them. Many people are asking if car seats are even safe and wondering what options they have. For its part, the NHTSA says that a new car seat – properly installed in a rear seat with the child secured correctly – is still the best protection.

Recalls and Install Info Online
For more information about proper seat installation, look for tips online. We like the step-by-step instructions at babycenter.com. You can also find a child seat inspection station to verify that your seat is safe, appropriate for your vehicle and installed correctly. And, if you have concerns about a seat, the NHTSA posts an up-to-date list of car seat recalls on its site, where you can also register your car seat to be notified of a recall, or sign up for email or RSS car seat recall information.

Finding out that your child may not be as safe as you thought can be scary, but following the best available advice from experts can help put your mind at ease.

Looking for different information? Have questions or feedback? Please let us know.

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