For a long time, Child Passenger Safety Techs were told not to recommend specific seats.  They are all safe and pass federal standards, or so said the official training manual.  Most techs dutifully passed this stale company line along to parents.  Fortunately, that all ended when the NHTSA itself started rating seats a number of years ago.  At last, official proof that all carseats are not created equal!  The original ratings were questionable and almost every seat got 4-stars or 5-stars, so they were not really useful.  Now, the ratings have improved and have a wide variation among models. They don’t always match the experience of technicians and advocates, but they are worth a look.

The big drawback?  They don’t actually do any crash testing or correlate the star rating to a risk of injury.

This is very confusing for parents, because this is exactly what the NHTSA does for its star ratings on new vehicles.  Sure, there is a mandated minimum safety standard that all child seats must pass, but this is all done on a test sled and the manufacturers essentially self-certify their products themselves.

So, how do we know which models are safest?  We don’t.  There simply isn’t a credible set of crash test ratings that can tell us which carseats are proven safer than others.  Consumer Reports has done independent testing in the past, but their results have been full of questionable ratings and blunders.  Not only don’t they provide any information on their crash protection rating, but they don’t give any information on their testing at all.  No published data, no peer review, no explanations, no correlation of ratings to real world risk of injury, nothing.  Every once in a while they do identify a serious flaw or safety risk and that is a great service.  The greater disservice is that their crash protection ratings are no more useful at telling us which seats are safest than the NHTSA Ease of Use Ratings, my tarot card reader or my pet fish, Marvin.

For the cost of one wing off of a single B-2 Bomber, we could have a pretty comprehensive child restraint safety evaluation program in the USA.  Sadly, it’s easier to get politicians to support machines of death, rather than a program to protect the lives of future soldiers from their #1 killer.  In Europe, they don’t build B-2s.  Coincidentally or not, the European Union puts us to shame with a comprehensive crash test rating system for child seats.  Until we get different national priorities, we lack comparative crash tests or statistics and just don’t know which models are the safest.   

Certainly, ease-of-use can help parents get it installed correctly and that can improve safety.  Some models, usually those that are more expensive, do add some features that make installation and adjustments easier, but there is really nothing to prove they are preventing injuries.  Some manufacturers deal with things like defects, recalls and unsafe products in a much better manner than others, so reputation might be important, too.  There are a number of features that should improve safety.  For example, there are things like energy absorbing padding materials, top tethers that can be used rear-facing and side impact protection wings.  All sound great in theory and likely do make a real difference, but there is no proof of how effective they are, at least not in the public domain.

There is still good advice.  Keep your kids properly restrained in the back seat in an appropriate child seat that is correctly installed.  That alone reduces their risk far more than the choice among child seats or the choice of appropriate rear seating positions.  You can also read our reviews at Carseatblog.com- we’ll tell you the pros and cons of new models.  While we can’t tell you which ones are safest, you’ll get a good idea about which ones we’d trust for our own kids:-) And stay tuned next week!  There will be a few new things announced at the ABC Kids Expo; I have one in my hands right now!  Heather and I will report from the show with any tasty CPS product introductions.  Safe travels!