Current Child Car Seat Protection Not Enough, Experts Say

From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 9, 2000 (Washington) -- Federal regulators have failed to go the full mile in terms of protecting the safety of infants and toddlers riding in motor vehicles, a group of experts told officials of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Wednesday.

It is generally acknowledged that the majority of child safety seats are effective, but there is "little timely or documented guidance as to their relative performance and effectiveness," said Kathleen Weber, who is director of the child passenger protection research program at the University of Michigan Medical School. And under the current federal standards, "neither the public nor NHTSA has any way of knowing how the seat will perform when tested to the limits at which the seat is advertised," added Sally Greenberg, senior product safety counsel for Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine.

The 14 people who testified at the open public meeting convened by the NHTSA were safety experts from consumer groups and research institutions, including Weber and Greenberg; representatives from the car manufacturing industry; and two 'general citizens.' According to the participants, the information currently required and disclosed by the NHTSA provides nothing of value to the consumer. The NHTSA could use its web site to communicate more information about the appropriate and safe use of car seats, yet even this resource presently is wasted, they said. But despite agreeing that further regulation was needed, opinions did vary on what shape and form the regulations should take.

The most widely discussed solution was the development of an overall 'star' rating system similar to the one now used in Australia and Europe. But this seemingly consumer-oriented idea did not receive widespread support. Speaking out against it were not only industry representatives, but also some representatives of consumer groups, including Stephanie M. Tombrello, executive director of SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A., a national organization devoted to child passenger safety.

"I'm worried that a 'star' system will not address the right issue," Tombrello tells WebMD. In her experience, she says, the problem really rests with the typical parent -- not the seat. In fact, she tells WebMD, the car seats now on the market actually are very forgiving, especially considering that there presently are about 600 infant automobile deaths per year, although at least 80% of all car seats are misused. "We are calling for updated regulations," she says. But those regulations should focus on providing consumers with the education necessary on how to select and install the appropriate seat, rather than focusing on the seat itself, she says.

"The best seat is the one the fits your child, fits your vehicle, and fits the needs of your family," she tells WebMD.

But the adoption of a good rating system is possible, Greenberg says. "It is safe to say that most car seats fit most cars," she tells WebMD. During her testimony, Greenberg also noted that three safety seats failed a 1995 Consumer Reports crash test, which was designed to approximate the NHTSA's existing standards. It is important to be able to distinguish between these products, she tells WebMD. A rating system, she says, would also force manufacturers to produce better products. But there is one critical caveat: The NHTSA must also upgrade its testing procedures "or run the risk of misleading the public," she says, while noting that the NHTSA currently does not test seats for the upper limits of the child's weight and vehicle speed displayed on the labels.

"We believe that the biggest issue is nonuse," says Robert Waller, CAE, executive vice president of the Juvenile Products Manufacturing Association (JPMA), the association representing makers of car seats. JPMA is opposed to any regulations that would limit manufacturers' ability to design, he says. The current compliance standards are excellent, he says, and he also points out that the majority of experts consider most, if not all, of today's car seats to be extremely safe. However, "we would look at a rating system if it was appropriately designed," he tells WebMD.

That's good, because a rating system might be on the horizon, despite any concern that this rating system might further confuse consumers by leading them to believe that one product is better than another without accounting for their needs.

Vital Information:

  • Safety experts warned government officials that more needs to be done to protect infants and toddlers while they ride in cars.
  • Most safety seats work, but few parents know how to use them properly.
  • Experts disagree if a rating system would be helpful, but it's likely one may be coming in the future.