It’s one of the many shocks for first-time parents. The realization that there isn’t any real comparative safety information available to consumers on the plethora of different carseats currently on the market. I remember my first carseat decision. It was spring 1997 and after surviving a particularly nasty wreck several months earlier, I was attempting to choose the “safest” carseat for my precious baby-to-be. I had no useful information to go on and I remember feeling really lost despite the fact that there were FAR fewer choices back then. I spent hours at different baby stores playing with seats, dismantling them, and desperately trying to make meaningful comparisons. Unfortunately, I wound up choosing an infant seat that I found out many years later was probably seriously flawed. Luckily, I never had to find that out the hard way like some other poor parents and their babies did.
Fast forward 12.5 years and not much has changed. I still have no choice but to “trust” that a product I purchase to protect my 5 year old under the worst possible circumstances is really up to the task. While designs are continuously improving, that is going go be offset to some degree by the increased demands placed on these seats. Apparently, it’s not enough for infants seats to be rated to 22 lbs anymore. Now everyone wants infant seats that can be used to 30 lbs or more. Higher weight limits, both rear-facing and/or forward-facing, are practically an expectation for any new seat that manufacturers develop today. And while we’re all happy to see this trend, you’ve gotta wonder how safe these seats are when really pushed to the max?
How exactly are manufacturers testing these seats when few federal standards exist for such increased ratings? Once again, we’re expected just to trust that these seats will do what they claim to be capable of. I dunno, maybe it’s the cynical New Yorker in me but I don’t find it easy to trust any company that won’t openly provide me with information on how their seats are tested and under what conditions. And yet, when almost every manufacturer plays the secrecy card we really don’t have a choice but to trust someone. So we buy something and pray that our trust isn’t misplaced as mine was in 1997.
For the record, I’m not advocating for full disclosure of all test data. I’m actually against full public disclosure because we can’t interpret the data in any meaningful way and people get too hung up on numbers while often failing to see the bigger, more important picture (does the seat fit your child? can it be installed properly in your vehicle? can you use it correctly all the time?). Case in point, NHTSA has published the results of data on seats they have compliance tested over the years. Most parents and techs never see the data because it’s buried in the vast NHTSA website but for those who have seen it - it causes a lot of confusion. Seriously, try to draw any meaningful conclusions from that data. Make sure you keep in mind the fact that your kid probably isn’t exactly the same size as the dummy they used, and you don’t drive a test sled with lap belts on a bench seat. If you want to take it a step further, try comparing the results from the same CR model (or clones) tested in different years.
Hopefully by this point you’re starting to understand why this is even a debate. Too little info is bad because there is no accountability and therefore little outside pressure for manufacturers to improve marginal products (especially if they’re selling well). On the other hand, too much info can be extremely confusing and counter-productive. If it becomes a numbers game then we’ll start seeing “Lowest Head Injury Criterion of Any Carseat in America!” become a marketing slogan for a seat that may be otherwise difficult to install and use properly. And we all know that parents will buy the seat that advertises the lowest HIC values just because they’ll assume it’s safer than a seat with higher HIC values. Never mind the fact that even I have no idea how HIC is actually calculated (it’s a complicated formula). My point is that even though HIC values are important enough to be calculated during standardized FMVSS 213 testing – it’s certainly only one small piece of the puzzle and no one should get hung up on a single number.
Personally, I’ve always advocated for more information but we need a compromise between what we have now (which is basically nothing) and total disclosure of everything. It will never be possible to determine which seats may be the “best” or “safest” for every possible child/vehicle scenario. However, it would be nice to at least know how the manufacturers are testing these new higher-weight seats and under what testing conditions. If tomorrow someone comes out with a seat that goes rear-facing to 80 lbs – don’t we have the right to ask “how do I know the seat is really safe to use rear-facing for my child at that weight?” and “how have you tested this seat to ensure its integrity and protective capabilities at this weight”?
As traditional weight and height limits are pushed more and more in an effort to capture a bigger market share, consumers and techs need assurances that these harnessed seats are being adequately tested at capacity. “Meets or exceeds all federal motor vehicles safety standards” is essentially meaningless when you’re talking about a CR that’s rated to 40 lbs (or more) rear-facing or 80 lbs forward-facing with the harness.
There is some good news on this front to report. Sunshine Kids Juvenile Products is the first manufacturer to provide what could be a model for appropriate and helpful performance and safety information for consumers. They are openly providing us with detailed summaries of crash test performance information on their RadianSL models without disclosing actual test data. Kudos to SKJP for being the first to acknowledge that parents, techs and advocates deserve a little more than “trust us”. I hope their willingness to provide consumers and CPS advocates with this type of information motivates other CR manufacturers to follow suit.
In similar fashion, the recent release of the NCAP crash test footage from Transport Canada provided us with plenty of graphic footage but no numbers for us to get hung up on. The TC video clips also highlighted, in my opinion, the need for additional and enhanced standards. In a market driven by increased demand for higher-weight-harness CRs, with little regulated safety standards for such HWH seats, we need assurances that they have been adequately tested and can actually live up to their claims.