The Safest Infant Carseats:  Best, Better or Basic?  How does your infant seat compare?

Today, Consumer Reports released the first round of ratings using their new test methodology for evaluating infant child seats. With cautious optimism, we feel this is likely to be a big step forward and should help parents to compare the crash safety of carseats. In the long term, like the NHTSA 5-star ratings and IIHS Best Pick ratings for automobiles, more rigorous testing can often lead to better product designs in the future. Though many of us in the Child Passenger Safety industry have had our concerns about previous ratings, there are definitely improvements that were made over the last few years.

The new Consumer Reports carseat crash test was developed to be more rigorous than federal standards. CR realizes that all carseats meet basic safety standards and wanted to develop a test to determine which seats provide an extra level of protection. This new test was designed by an automotive safety engineer and peer-reviewed by an independent crash testing expert with 40 years of experience in the field. It is conducted on an actual contemporary vehicle seat (a 2010 Ford Flex 2nd row seat) with a floor below it, unlike the government test which has a 70’s era back seat test bench with no floor. There’s a front seat back, called the blocker plate, installed in front of the test seat to simulate a front seat, which is used to test potential injury, and the speed of the test is set at 35 mph. Testing is performed at an independent, outside testing facility. The new crash test ratings scale will no longer use the circular blobs, but will instead indicate “basic,” “better,” or “best” at providing crash protection above and beyond baseline standards.

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CR’s New Test Bench in Their Offices

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FMVSS 213 Test Bench

When we visited CR last November, our hosts were warm and welcoming and the feeling in the building was so relaxed. They don’t hide in public: we’ve met each other in passing at conferences, but it’s always been quick handshakes and “Hi, bye, we’ve got to get together,” kind of conversations. You know the kind. Visiting their testing facility gave us a chance to see the inner workings and for them to have the transparency they were eager to share with the CPS community. Let’s call it like it is: they’re intelligent, highly qualified people and know they receive a lot of criticism, but they’re proud of the work they do and feel they provide a valuable service to their readers.

Nobody wants the kind of publicity they had in 2007 when the methodology they used in running their side-impact crash test for carseats was flawed and most carseats failed catastrophically. It took CR a lot of time and effort to overcome that incident; they’ve since hired a dedicated automotive safety engineer whose sole responsibility is to develop the carseat testing protocol and work on their child passenger safety team.

The test bench (buck) was right there to see and photograph—there was no way to hide it, unless they wanted to throw a big tarp over it.  They were eager to answer all our questions, from their methodology regarding how they arrived at their ratings to how they ate lunch every day. They were also very interested in our feedback. And since one of us isn’t the quiet type, we shared. It was a great day of getting to know each other and our processes.

Will this new crash test bring to light issues we haven’t seen before? Is the test buck too stiff? How will this affect buyers in the market for an infant seat right now? How will this affect parents and caregivers currently using an infant seat that only rates a “basic” rating? In this instance, time will tell. In the meantime, we have the results to share with you.

The Ratings: What Parents Need to Know:

Below is a table of models listed alphabetically, grouped within their Crash Protection ratings that are based on the new frontal crash testing system developed by CR. Safer models that perform well in this more severe testing receive a “Better” or “Best” crash protection rating to indicate a potential extra margin of safety over the minimum government requirements. Models that are less likely to offer that added margin of safety over the minimum standards are still safe, but receive a “Basic” rating. CR also issued a separate overall score*, based on these crash protection ratings and other factors like fit to vehicle and ease of use.

Not surprisingly, their top overall performer (crash protection and other factors combined) was also one of our Recommended Carseats, the Chicco Keyfit 30 (and Keyfit 22). Other current models with high combined overall scores that appear on CarseatBlog’s recommended lists or that we have reviewed favorably for other factors like low birthweight newborn fit include the Britax B-Safe, the Safety 1st OnBoard Air 35 and the UPPAbaby MESA. We continue to highly recommend all of these infant seats.

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For lower priced models, they offered a few “Best Bets,” including the Safety 1st Comfy Carry Elite Plus, the Graco Snugride 30 Classic Connect and the Safety 1st OnBoard 35. We also like these models as budget-friendly choices.

Other models with above average combined overall scores include the Maxi-Cosi Mico, Combi Shuttle, Cybex Aton 2, the First Years Via 35 I470 and the similar First Years Contigo.

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We note that the Cybex Aton 2, “Performed better than any of the models in our new crash performance test,”  likely due to an innovative load leg – a feature shared only by the new Nuna Pipa (not tested) and the soon-to-be-released Cybex Aton Q.  This load leg cannot be used on the standard NHTSA crash test sled, as the sled does not have a floor like the one on the sled that Consumer Reports developed for this new crash test.

As we said to start, we have cautious optimism that this new testing protocol will prove to be fair and reliable, but we reserve final judgment until the results have been more thoroughly vetted by industry experts.  Like many parents, advocates and experts, we have had our share of criticism for past Consumer Reports ratings.  With this new testing, we hope their results will eventually be accepted as a reliable source of comparative information on carseats for consumers.  So what do you think?  Fair or unfair?  Long overdue or unnecessary?  Trustworthy or not?  We appreciate all your comments!

Please stay tuned for some more in-depth commentary on their methods and results!

Consumer Reports also provides Five Tips for Parents to follow to make sure their infant is safe when they travel in the car. We agree these are important tips to follow.

CR’s Five Important Tips for Parents:

• Don’t wait until the last minute to install the car seat. When you’re expecting a baby,there are many things that have to be done, but don’t leave the car seat installation until the last minute. The best way to make sure the seat is installed correctly and that you know how to properly secure your baby in the seat is to take the time to get familiar with the seat and its instructions and to go to a car seat check up event hosted by safekids.org.  A Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician will help you make sure the seat is properly installed and teach you the dos and don’ts of car seat safety.

• Do not put bulky blankets or coats inside the harness. Swaddling is a common practice with infants, but when placing your baby in an infant seat, it is very important that the harness is snug enough against the baby’s lightly clothed body. No harness webbing should be able to be pinched between the thumb and forefinger. Tightening the harness straps over swaddling blankets or puffy clothing can leave undetected slack in the harness, which can lead to an increased chance of injury, or even ejection from the seat during a crash. For extra warmth, tighten the harness first and then place the jacket or blanket on top of the child and harness.

• Position the harness straps correctly. The proper positioning for the harness straps for a rear-facing child is at or below the shoulders. This will prevent the child from moving upward in the seat in the event of a crash. It is also important to check the straps often since kids grow quickly. Consequently, the harness may need to be frequently adjusted.

• Position the chest clip correctly. The purpose of the chest clip is to keep the harness in the correct position right before a crash. Technicians often see the chest clip positioned either too low, which can result in shoulder straps not fitting correctly, or too high, which can cause breathing issues. The proper place for the chest clip is at armpit level.

• Pay attention to your child’s height as well as weight. A child that is too tall for their car seat is at an increased risk of head injury during a crash. All car seats have a height AND weight limit. According to the CDC growth charts, a child is actually more likely to outgrow many infant car seats in height before they reach the maximum weight limit of the seat, so be sure to pay attention to your child’s height relative to the shell of the seat and compare it to the height limit of the car seat.

Stay tuned to CarseatBlog for continued coverage and commentary on this story! We’ll have more to say in the coming days.

*The full results and ratings, including the overall score earned by each infant seat tested, are available online to CR subscribers.