Last Month, Volvo introduced three new child restraints, developed by Britax Römer (article also viewable courtesy of Sweedspeed). 

- The child restraints are available in three models for children of different ages and sizes:
1. Infant seat, from newborn up to 13 kg, up to about one year old.
2.  Convertible child seat, 9-25 kg, from 9 months to about age 6. Can be turned forward facing no earlier than age 3, preferably age 4, and the child must weigh at least 15 kg.
3. Booster seat with backrest, 15-36 kg, from 4 to about 10 years, preferably longer.

Perhaps of the greatest interest is their convertible child seat that can be used rear facing, “from nine months until the child is about six years old, which is a breakthrough in safety for children in cars.”  It can then be fitted forward facing starting once the child is at least 15kg (33 pounds) and has outgrown the rear facing settings.

Volvo Cars recommends that children travel rearward facing until at least the age of three, preferably four years or older.”  This is typical for kids in Sweden, where rates of serious injury and fatalities are extremely low for this age group.  Recent research in the USA has confirmed that kids between 12 and 23 months are much safer rear-facing, prompting some child passenger safety advocates to want an increase in the 1-year and 20 pound minimum recommendations for forward facing.

Safety advantages aside, there’s a catch.  These child seats will only be available in Europe and Asia, including China, in the summer of 2009.  They won’t be available in the USA.  From what we understand, this is because these seats apparently require a special fitment that would only be available in Volvo automobiles.  In the USA, the NHTSA requires child restraints to also allow fitment via seatbelt and the LATCH system.  Without such means of attaching these new seats to any other vehicle brand or model, they would presumably fail to meet standards in the USA and could not be sold or used here.

In response to some comments on this issue, this statement was posted on the Yahoo CPSP List:

Standard 213 does standardize the means of attachment of child restraints, and in that way, prohibits vehicle-specific seats. The requirement is for child seats to be capable of attaching to the vehicle seat by a seat belt and by LATCH. The restraint can’t attach only by a special mechanism that only specific vehicles have. However, if they are able to attach by a seat belt and by LATCH they can have a supplementary (vehicle-specific) attachment mechanism in addition to those universal means of attachment.

The reason for requiring a standardized means of attachment is to reduce the likelihood of misuse. We want to avoid the situation of a consumer acquiring a vehicle-specific child seat that can’t attach universally and then trying to use it in the wrong vehicle.

This seems very reasonable on the surface.  After all, consumers rarely read instruction manuals, even if they still have one.  Somewhere, someone will try to put one of these seats in another vehicle, whether it is a caregiver who drives another brand of vehicle or a second owner who buys the seat not knowing it is made only for Volvos.  The odds of finding a unique model like this installed in some very unique and very unsafe manner are quite high.  This could put a child at serious risk of injury.

On the flip side, the odds of finding any other child restraint installed in a very unique and very unsafe manner are already fairly high.  “Universal” hardly describes seatbelts or the LATCH system in regard to fitting a child restraint.  With misuse rates around 90% nationally, it’s obvious our standards that require a child seat to attach universally are effective only in principle.  We had a chance at “universal” when the LATCH system was introduced.  With rigid attachments and requirements on the position of anchors in vehicles, attaching a carseat to a vehicle could have been much easier, as I will demonstrate in Part II of this blog.  Instead, we gave in to the wishes of the auto and child seat industry, allowing flexible attachments on carseats and little regulation on how anchors were designed or positioned in vehicles.  This resulted in a system that didn’t live up to its expectations regarding ease-of-use and universal fitment that would do away with potential misuse.  It also continued our system where child seat and auto manufacturers effectively work independently, resulting in incompatibilities and difficulties that have plagued consumers for decades.

So now we have an automaker and a child seat manufacturer that have worked together to produce a system that is presumably both safer and easier.  The result?  Apparently, we won’t allow it in the USA.  On a safety basis, I can see both sides of the story, but there’s another issue.  If we really want to make child restraints safer and easier in the future, we have to allow innovation.  If our regulations stand in the way of quality innovations, then perhaps they need to be updated.  In this case, perhaps another look at making an exception would be in order, assuming that such a request was actually made and denied originally.

Perhaps we don’t know the full story here.  So, it’s hard to take a firm position on one side of it without knowing all the facts.  For example, these Volvo child restraints look very similar to models marketed separately by Britax Römer in Europe, for fitment in any model vehicle.  It’s not yet clear what is unique about the Volvo child seats in terms of fitment to Volvo automobiles.  Perhaps they simply have not been crash tested or certified to other USA standards yet.  If that turns out to be the case, then Volvo may actually be responsible for not marketing them in the United States and Canada. 

What I do know is that if this Volvo system is an improvement in safety and/or ease of use, then I hope our government finds a way to allow it to protect our children, too.  Economies of scale are a big factor in innovation, as they help spread out the costs of initial investment.  With one of the biggest global markets closed to Volvo, how many other auto manufacturers are likely to follow their lead by developing new child restraint systems?