Recaro Young Sport - BPB 4Today the IIHS released the results of its second round of booster seat fit tests.  They tested 60 seats and grouped the results into 4 performance categories – Best Bets, Good Bets, (Questionable or Inconsistent) and Not Recommended.   All the tests were conducted using the 6-year-old Hybrid III dummy which weighs 51.6 lbs, has an overall height of almost 45″ tall, and a seated height of 25″.  These results evaluate belt fit – not crash protection.  In each case, the boosters were given a total of 8 scores – 4 for lap belt fit and 4 for shoulder belt fit.  The 4 conditions span the range of seatbelt configurations in different vehicles.  The overall rating that each booster received was based on the range of scores for each measurement.

The Today Show ran a segment this morning on the results of this testing and they even interviewed our very own Darren Qunell!  High-fives going out to the Qunell kids for being such great booster models!     http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/26184891/vp/34521238#34521238

This second round of tests cannot be directly compared with the 1st round of test results from the IIHS because the engineers have modified the test device and protocol.  These changes will supposedly make it easier for manufacturers to reliably reproduce the results.  This probably explains why the Combi Kobuk highback model dropped from a “Good Bet” in the 1st round of testing to a “Not Recommended” in this second round.  It is worth mentioning that the Kobuk when used without the back portion (as a backless booster) was rated a “Best Bet” in both the 1st and 2nd rounds of IIHS testing.  Unfortunately, The Kobuk is not currently available in just a backless version so consumers would have no choice but to buy the full highback version if they wanted this “Best Bet” pick.  

Personally, I’d like to thank the IIHS for stepping up to the plate and tackling this important issue since clearly NHTSA wasn’t up to the task.  Or perhaps they are up to the task but like everything else involving the federal government, it takes two decades to implement any meaningful changes.  In the meantime, we have scores of children riding around in sub-optimal booster seats who aren’t as well protected as their parents imagine they are.

Am I being a little harsh?  Perhaps.  But when you see many of the same lame, ineffective booster seat designs persist for almost a decade - you start to wonder what it’s going to take for CR manufacturers to either improve or discontinue these designs.  I understand that changes take time – lots of time.  However, if there is no incentive for change to happen at all because a product is selling well and it’s meeting all the current minimum federal safety standards, well… then you get what we have now  -  booster designs that have been around since the stone age.

I have a feeling that’s going to change now thanks to the Institute.  Since the mid-1990′s they’ve managed to inspire (or some would say “shame”) vehicle manufacturers to build better, safer cars.  Now hopefully they can do the same for booster seat manufacturers.  To be fair, we’ve seen a LOT of good booster seats designs come from various CR manufacturers  in the last 5 years or so.  The problem is convincing these same manufacturers to abandon earlier sub-par designs that are still selling well thanks to clever marketing, cute covers and in some cases – low prices.

However, as the current list of “Best Bets” illustrates – there are some potentially effective belt-positioning booster seats available for every budget.  Does that mean the $35 Cosco Pronto is the same as the $275 Clek Oobr?  Uh, no.  But if your budget is limited (and nowadays – whose isn’t?) you can spend your money wisely and still feel good about giving your child better than average crash protection assuming they are using the booster seat correctly (misuse is a very common and widespread problem).  Just keep in mind that boosters are most appropriate for kids over 40 lbs who are between 5-12 years old.  Pre-schoolers, children who weigh less than 40 lbs, and children who are not physically or developmentally able to sit still and perfectly upright in a booster seat for the entire ride, every ride (awake and asleep!), are really best protected in an appropriate child restraint with a full 5-point harness system.   For what it’s worth, I don’t let my 5 year old son ride in a booster seat yet.  Luckily, there are many higher-weight harness seats currently available that can accommodate bigger, older kids in a 5-point harness.

If you’re new to our blog and our related car-seat.org forums you might be shocked and more than a little upset to discover that not all booster seats are equally effective.  For those of us who have been involved in the field of CPS (Child Passenger Safety) for a while, the majority of these IIHS test results aren’t a big surprise.  It may help to know that many of the seats tested were clones (the same seat sold under different names or different brands).  For example, of the 13 “Not Recommended” models - there are really only 6 different seats.

  • Harmony Secure Comfort Deluxe
  • Combi Kobuk Highback
  • Evenflo Express/Chase/Sightseer/Visions/Traditions
  • Cosco Alpha Omega/Safety 1st All-in-One
  • Cosco Alpha Omega Elite/Alpha Luxe Echelon/Eddie Bauer Deluxe 3-in-1
  • Eddie Bauer Deluxe/Safety 1st Summit

With the exception of the Harmony Secure Comfort Deluxe which we reviewed earlier this year and the Combi Kobuk which we have also reviewed - the “Not Recommended” models weren’t a surprise.  The Express/Chase/Traditions/Visions/Sightseer got the big thumbs down in our own informal Combo Seat as Booster study too.  Ditto for the Alpha Omega Elite and all its clones.  Actually, almost all of the combination (harness/booster)  seats that I tested with my youngest son in booster mode did a poor job of positioning the lap and shoulder belt optimally in my vehicle. The only real standout in our “combo seat with 40 lb harness weight limit” category was the Recaro Young Sport which also earned a Best Bet designation from the IIHS. Unfortunately, that particular seat is only rated to 40 lbs with the 5-pt harness (up to 80 lbs as a booster) whereas the other “Best Bet” combo seat, the Britax Frontier, is rated to 65 or 8o lbs (depending on the availability of a tether anchor) with the 5-pt harness and up to 100 lbs as a booster.

Ultimately, the take-away message here isn’t a list of “good” or “bad” booster seats but a plea to all parents: please learn how to assess if *your* booster seat is actually doing a good job positioning the seatbelt in *your* vehicle on *your* child.  Kids come in all different sizes and shapes, every booster design is different and every vehicle seating position has its own individual quirks and seatbelt geometry.  Choosing an IIHS ”Best Bet” booster will not guarantee that it will fit your child optimally in your vehicle.  However, if you know what to look for and how to assess optimal seatbelt fit - you can search until you find your own best bet.  Please see our previous blogs on assessing proper belt fit with a booster and how to know when your child can ride safely without a booster using only the vehicle’s adult lap/shoulder seatbelt.

Want more information on specific carseats, booster seats or child passenger safety in general?  Visit our car-seat and car-safety forums HERE.