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The Safest Infant Carseats? New Crash Protection Ratings and Methods from Consumer Reports

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.

 

NHTSA Questions Graco’s Logic Regarding Recent Buckle Recall

NHTSALast month, Graco recalled close to 3.8 million carseats due to an issue with sticky buckles. However, they did not issue a recall for 1.8 million infant carseats, including all the various SnugRide models, which have used the same buckle in the past. Many parents have questioned the decision not to recall the infant seats, and now NHTSA has ordered Graco to explain their reasoning. Graco will have until March 20 to respond to the agency’s request.

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In the meantime, if you do need a replacement buckle for a Graco infant seat, you can request one by calling Graco 800-345-4109  (Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.). For more info on the buckle recall please see:  https://www.pages02.net/newellrubbermaid/harness-buckles .  For Canada, please see the Transport Canada Recall Information and Graco Baby Canada.

CPS Tech Talk: An in-depth look at new LATCH Limits

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For a few months now, the parenting world has been abuzz with confusion over these new LATCH limits. We at CarseatBlog have been trying to explain things in clear language so people don’t have to read through volumes of government documents to understand it all. Our recent post, New Federal Regulations Regarding LATCH Weight Limits – What Parents Need to Know gives a general summary of what most people need to know.

But what about those of you who want to know more? The nitty-gritty behind the why’s of the whole thing, and the small changes that have occurred since the time the new amendment was first proposed? That’s where this post comes in.

Changes to Labeling

First, let’s talk about a couple small changes.

Initially the new rule stated that after February 27, 2014, car seats would have to come with a label stating, “Do not use the lower anchors of the child restraint anchorage system (LATCH system) to attach this child restraint when restraining a child weighing more than “*.”  The asterisk would be a child weight that, when combined with the weight of the car seat, would not be greater than 65 lbs. For example, if a seat weighs 20 lbs, the label would say, “Do not use the lower anchors of the child restraint anchorage system (LATCH system) to attach this child restraint when restraining a child weighing more than 45 lbs.”

But some people raised concerns that the wording was unclear and might cause people to think they had to discontinue harness use at that weight, rather than simply switch to a seatbelt installation.

NHTSA listened to those concerns and has created a new solution that will be required starting February 27, 2015, or can be implemented sooner for manufacturers who want to. That solution is a diagram that is supposed to eliminate confusion.

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The idea is that the drawing shows lower anchors, and therefore makes it clear that it’s the lower anchors that are supposed to be discontinued at a certain weight (implying that it’s fine to keep using the seatbelt).

I applaud their effort, but I’m not sure the diagram will eliminate confusion, and I suspect it might even increase it. Yes, it says “lower anchors,” but a lot of parents don’t really understand what that means (as opposed to a top tether, or as opposed to a seatbelt which does, after all, anchor in the child seat). I think it’s very likely that people will look at the diagram, see webbing (of some sort) and assume that it’s no longer safe to install with LATCH or the seatbelt or top tethers. A better illustration might have been a drawing of a LATCH connector itself, but it’s probably too late now. Hopefully the new labeling won’t cause too much confusion.

Rounding the Weight

The second change in the final ruling about LATCH limit labeling is that manufacturers will have the option of rounding the maximum forward-facing child weight up to the next 5 lbs. The idea behind this was to make the numbers “cleaner.” For example, instead of saying that LATCH should be discontinued at 42 lbs, the label could state 45 lbs.

NHTSA did concede that in some cases, this could make the total weight of the child plus seat exceed 65 lbs. Say a seat weighs 37 lbs. 65 minus 37 is 28 lbs, but to keep things simple, the manufacturer could state a child weight of 30 lbs. That means that the actual total weight would be 67 lbs (and feasibly a combination could get as high as 69 lbs.) but NHTSA believes anchors will be strong enough to allow for that slight variation.

It is important to note that the rules are slightly different (and slightly more confusing) for rear-facing. NHTSA is ok with allowing the total forward-facing weight to go a bit over 65 lbs because the top tether helps reduce some of the force on the lower anchors. Rear-facing, though, the lower anchors take all the force. In that situation, NHTSA doesn’t want the LATCH weight to exceed 65 lbs at all. So if manufacturers want to round the weights to nice numbers they can, but they need to assume a 60-lb total when they do. That ensures that the total weight will not be more than 65 lbs, even if they round up.

Confused yet?

Let’s take the Graco Smart Seat as an example. It weighs just under 34 lbs. That means the total child weight would be 31 lbs. (65-34=31) Graco has two choices for listing the forward-facing LATCH limit. They can put 31, or they can round up to 35, which puts the actual limit at 69, but that’s still considered compliant. (Graco can also put a lower number if they’d like.) For rear-facing, they can use the actual 31-lb weight or a lower number, but they cannot round up since the total rear-facing LATCH weight must not exceed 65 lbs.

That means that a seat could have different LATCH limits rear-facing and forward-facing. (In cases where the weight limit is different, manufacturers will either have to take the lower of the two weights and include one limit and diagram, or they can provide two separate ones. In the situation above, Graco could choose to list a 30-lb weight limit regardless of which direction the seat faces.)

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Background behind the Decisions

So what logic is behind this madness? Believe it or not, it actually makes some sense.

New Federal Regulations Regarding LATCH Weight Limits – What Parents Need to Know

We’ve been waiting for clarification of this final ruling for an entire year and we’re just getting details this week – days shy of the Feb 27, 2014, implementation date. Many CPS Technicians and advocates have been aware that these changes were coming but we were also aware that there were petitions pending so we were all waiting for the final word from NHTSA. There was much speculation that implementation of these changes would be delayed or that NHTSA would increase the weight limits, but none of those things happened.

So… in a nut shell, here is what parents and caregivers need to know:

There are two changes to federal safety standards going into effect this week that will affect some carseats manufacturered on or after Feb 27, 2014. First is a new label requirement. While that doesn’t sound like a big deal – it actually is. NHTSA has ruled that carseats with a 5-point harness should not be installed using the lower LATCH anchors if the combined weight of your child and the carseat exceeds 65 lbs. In these cases, you should discontinue using the lower anchors in your vehicle to install your carseat and switch to a seatbelt installation instead when your child reaches a certain weight. The label will tell you at what point you should make that switch.

The concern is that the lower LATCH anchors in your vehicle may not be strong enough to restrain a very heavy child in a very heavy carseat under severe crash loads. It makes sense – mass is mass regardless of whether it’s the mass of the child or the mass of the carseat. Both are going to exert forces on the lower LATCH anchor bars when they are loaded in a crash.

If your carseat was manufactured before Feb 27, 2014 and the 5-pt harness has a weight limit of more than 40 lbs. please check your carseat instruction manual for guidance on LATCH weight limits. There may or may not be limits listed  - Dorel and Evenflo don’t generally list LATCH weight limits but Graco and Britax do. Also check this link to find out if your vehicle manufacturer has LATCH weight limits

Since parents probably don’t know how much their carseat weighs, going forward NHTSA is going to require the carseat manufacturers to “do the math” for you if there is any chance that the combined total of kid weight and carseat weight may be more than 65 lbs. Many carseat manufacturers are already listing LATCH weight limits on their seats with high harness weight limits.  Pictured below is the current Chicco NextFit label. The NextFit is rated up to 65 lbs in the forward-facing position but it weighs almost 25 lbs. Therefore according to the NextFit instructions you must switch to a seatbelt installation (plus tether) once your child reaches 40 lbs.

Not all carseats will have LATCH weight limits but it will be the responsibility of the carseat manufacturer to list one if necessary. For example, Graco knows exactly how much each of their carseats weigh and they know the maximum weight limits on the 5-point harness for each of their seats too.

  • The Graco ComfortSport harness is only rated to 40 lbs. and the seat itself definitely doesn’t weigh more than 25 lbs. so the new label requirement doesn’t apply to this seat. You can use LATCH (rear-facing or forward-facing) to the weight limits of a ComfortSport without concern.
  • The Graco Classic Ride is rated up to 50 lbs. with the harness but the seat itself weighs less than 15 lbs. so once again – the new label requirement doesn’t apply here and you can use LATCH (rear-facing or forward-facing) to the weight limits of a Classic Ride.
  •  A bigger, heavier seat like the Graco Nautilus will require this new label that tells parents when to switch to a seatbelt installation. The 5-point harness on the Nautilus is rated up to 65 lbs. and the seat itself  weighs about 20 lbs. so the label will probably tell you to discontinue installation with the lower LATCH anchors and switch to installation with seatbelt (plus tether) once your child weighs 45 lbs.

It’s up to you to keep track of how much your child weighs and to make the switch to seatbelt plus tether once your child exceeds the listed LATCH weight limit. It’s important to point out that this new requirement addresses weight limits for the lower anchors in your vehicle but does NOT impose a weight limit on the tether anchor. This is important because we always want you to use the tether if a carseat is installed forward-facing in a seating position that has a designated tether anchor.

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Currently there are no infant (rear-facing only) carseats that are so heavy that they could exceed the new 65 lbs. combined LATCH weight limits.  So if you have a kid in a rear-facing only infant seat – don’t worry about these new limits.

However, there are a few exceptionally heavy convertible seats that also have high rear-facing weight limits and consumers who buy these seats (manufactured after 2/27/14) will find labels and instructions telling them what the LATCH weight limits are for rear-facing (and separately for forward-facing). Convertible seats that will be required to have rear-facing lower anchor weight limits will include Diono convertibles, Graco Smart Seat & Clek Foonf.  In some cases the rear-facing LATCH weight limit could be as low as 25 or 30 lbs. child weight.

The second change to federal safety standards that is also being implemented this week involves testing with the new 10 year old Hybrid III dummy. This dummy weighs about 78 lbs. and is 51″ tall. Any carseat manufactured after Feb 27, 2014 that has a 5-point harness rated beyond 65 lbs. will be required to fit this 10 yr old dummy and also be required to pass certain crash test performance standards using this dummy. Since the 10-yr-old dummy is huge – it won’t fit in most convertible seats, which is why you’ll see many carseat manufacturers backtracking on the maximum weight limits of their convertibles and some higher-weight combination seats too. Seats that may have been rated to 70 lbs. or higher in the past may now have a weight limit of 65 lbs. Some manufacturers have already backtracked to 65 lbs., others will be doing so shortly as the new requirements are phased in this week.

The Britax Frontier 90 and Pinnacle 90 will retain their 90 lb. harness weight limits as those seats are already tested with the 10 yr old dummy. We know Graco is working on a new Argos 80 (we reported on it from ABC) which will be taller than the current Argos 70 combination seat and will be reinforced to pass testing with the new dummy. When we have more details about other higher-weight harness combination seats, we will share them here.

10 year old Hybrid III dummy

 

Want to know more? Dive deeper with our 2nd article on the new LATCH limits.

Graco Buckle Recall: Convertible and Combination Carseats

Graco is recalling buckles on nearly 3.8 million carseats, according to the Associated Press.  CarseatBlog has some coverage on cleaning buckles and ordering replacement buckles as well as instruction videos for parents on how to replace the buckle system if they have experienced difficulty releasing a child.  Graco reports that no injuries have been reported as a result of this issue.   For parents who have difficulty releasing their child from the harness system, we advise that you attempt to clean the buckle and contact Graco for a replacement using the email or telephone contact information below.

According to Graco Baby:

As part of our continuous product testing and improvement process, Graco identified that food and dried liquids can make some harness buckles progressively more difficult to open over time or become stuck in the latched position. Therefore, we have decided to conduct a voluntary recall on the harness buckles used on all toddler convertible car seats and harnessed booster seats manufactured from 2009 to July 2013.

As a solution, Graco offers a new and improved replacement harness buckle to affected consumers at no cost. Graco would like to stress this does not in any way affect the performance of the car seat or the effectiveness of the buckle to restrain the child. We encourage all consumers who are experiencing difficulty with their harness buckles to contact our customer service team at 800-345-4109 or consumerservices@gracobaby.com. All Graco SnugRide infant car seats are excluded from this recall.

For more information on this recall including a list of affected models and photos of the original and new harness buckles, please go to http://www.gracobaby.com/safetyandrecall/pages/safetyandrecallarticle.aspx?recallID=41&page=SafetyAndRecall.

Graco Nautilus with recalled "Signature" buckle   Graco Recalled Harness Buckle

Specific details on the products impacted are as follows:

  • Toddler Convertible Car Seats: Cozy Cline, Comfort Sport, Classic Ride 50, My Ride 65, My Ride 70, My Ride 65 with Safety Surround, Size4Me 70, My Size 70, Head Wise 70, Smart Seat
  • Harnessed Booster Seats: Nautilus 3-in-1, Nautilus Elite and Argos