This week Consumer Reports created a huge buzz when they released their new ratings on convertible carseats. Some parents were elated with the results, others were clearly upset by some of the scores and revelations and, in general, there was a lot of confusion. We know many of our savvy readers and CPS Techs appreciate more in-depth information and analysis so we wanted to offer you that in this separate follow-up article.
Our original article, which includes a full listing of the crash protection scores for all 23 seats, is here:
The Safest Convertible Carseats? New 2015 Crash Protection Ratings and Methods from Consumer Reports
Why did Consumer Reports decide to create their own, unique crash test for child restraints that already pass all the safety standards in FMVSS 213?
Consumer Reports wanted to provide consumers with comparative information on carseats. By developing their own test protocol, the aim was to determine which seats offered an extra margin of safety in certain crash conditions simulated by the new tests. We know all carseats sold in the U.S. presumably meet 213 standards but we also know all carseats aren’t the same. The goal here was to determine which seats could hold up well even under tougher crash test conditions that were also more “real world” than the 213 compliance tests.
What was the process in developing this new test?
It took Consumer Reports two and a half years to develop the new test while they extensively studied published research on pediatric biomechanics and child-injury patterns in vehicle crashes. They analyzed crash test videos and data from crashes conducted by NHTSA and Transport Canada. They also consulted with other child passenger safety and automotive safety experts. The final test protocol was reviewed by Dr. Priya Prasad, an outside consultant with 40 years of experience who is a respected expert in vehicle safety and injury biomechanics.
How is this test different from the FMVSS 213 tests?
Currently 213 compliance testing involves a test sled with a bench seat from a 70’s era vehicle with lap belts only and LATCH anchors. There is nothing to simulate interaction with a front seat and carseats aren’t tested with 3-point lap/shoulder belts. The seats are tested at approximately 30 mph (in reality it’s usually more like 26-28 mph). Unless you’re driving around town with your kids secured in the backseat of a ’73 Impala (that also has LATCH), the current FMVSS 213 crash tests are pretty useless in determining how your carseat might actually perform in a crash in your vehicle.
The Consumer Reports dynamic sled test was designed with more real world vehicle conditions in mind. They chose to use a 2nd row captain’s chair (with lap/shoulder belt, of course) from a model year 2009-2012 Ford Flex. The geometry of the vehicle seat and the stiffness of the seat cushion made it an ideal “average” of what you can expect to find in modern vehicles. They included a “blocker plate” (pictured above) mounted in front of the vehicle seat to simulate a front seatback surface for potential interaction with the carseat and/or the dummy inside. This is important because in the real world we know children are often injured when they come into contact with the back of the front seat during a crash. Consumer Reports also chose to run the tests at 35 mph (aka NCAP speeds) because that is the speed at which vehicles are crash tested in the government’s New Car Assessment Program (NCAP). It just makes sense to test carseats at the same speeds that we test vehicles for crash worthiness.
Is a crash test at 35 MPH really that much different than a test run at 30 MPH?
Yes, it’s a very big difference. An additional 5 miles per hour in the acceleration pulse may not seem like a big deal but in a crash test it increases the G-force from around 20-25 g to 35 g, in this case (an increase of 40% or more).
Why didn’t they test every convertible and why were All-in-One seats like the Graco 4Ever, Evenflo Symphony and Diono Radian not included?
Like everyone else, Consumer Reports has a budget that they have to stick to. They had to decide which seats to test in this round so they tried to choose seats that were either popular sellers or had some unique or innovative feature. Since there are now quite a few “All-in-One” seats that can be used rear-facing, forward-facing and in booster mode – they made the decision to test that category of seats separately since it’s going to involve additional work. We hope that they will test these seats in the next round before moving on to test the combination seats but that’s entirely up to them.
What’s the difference between the crash protection rating and the overall numeric score?
The crash protection rating is based solely on the combined results of the various crash tests the seat was subjected to. The ratings are based on injury criteria measured on the dummies, direct contact of the dummy’s head with the simulated seatback (aka the blocker plate) and the seat’s ability to remain intact during the test (structural integrity). Seats were given one of 3 ratings to represent their performance results. BEST, BETTER or BASIC.
The overall numeric score includes the crash protection rating plus ease-of-use and fit-to-vehicle assessments of that particular seat. They combined the results of those three tests to determine the overall rating for each seat. More weight is given to the ease-of-use and fit-to-vehicle testing than to the crash performance testing because “optimal crash protection cannot be expected without proper use and secure installation”.
We know from decades of experience in the field that seats that are difficult to install and use properly are much less likely to be installed and used properly by parents and caregivers. Now, if you are a CPS Technician or a savvy advocate who is absolutely certain that your carseat fits well and is installed properly in your vehicle then you don’t need to concern yourself with the overall numeric score.
How many crash tests was each convertible seat subjected to? Did they install the seats with seatbelt or LATCH? Which dummies were used?
Each seat was subjected to either 5, 6 or 7 different crash tests depending on the weight rating of the product. Seats rated up to 65 lbs. were subjected to all 7 crash tests. Seats rated up to 55 pounds (like the Britax Roundabout G4) had 6 crash tests. Seats that are only rated up to 40 lbs. (Scenera, Scenera NEXT, Coccoro, etc.) were subjected to 5 tests and were not tested with the bigger, heavier, 6-year-old dummy. This is important to note when comparing products. The seats rated to 65 lbs. had to pass 2 additional, more challenging crash tests than the 40 lb. seats.
Why did the Britax Marathon ClickTight and Cosco Scenera NEXT rank in the Top 5 when they both received a BETTER rating in the crash tests?
As stated above, the overall numeric score is influenced more heavily by the ease-of-use and fit-to-vehicle assessments than by the crash test rating. Therefore, seats that received a BETTER score in the crash ratings were boosted to the top of the overall scores because of excellent ease-of-use and fit-to-vehicle assessments.
What is the difference between a BEST rating in the crash tests and a BETTER rating?
While we don’t know exactly where they drew the line between BEST and BETTER, we do know that seats receiving a BEST rating for crash protection performed statistically better than other peer models for crash performance. The crash performance rating is based on a combination of injury measures and whether or not the various dummies experienced head contact for tests in both rear- and forward-facing orientations with both LATCH and seat belt.
What caused some seats to receive a BASIC rating?
Seats can be downgraded to a BASIC rating if there are repeatable structural integrity issues OR if the seat remains intact without any cracking, breaking, etc., but the dummy records injury measures that are considerably higher than the other peer models tested.
In this round of convertible seat testing there were 4 seats that received a BASIC rating and one seat that wasn’t rated at all because it performed so poorly compared with all the others. The details of what occurred with that one seat, the Recaro Performance Ride, can be found here.
Original Cosco Scenera (results do NOT apply to Scenera NEXT which is a completely different seat): 2 of 2 Cosco Scenera seats installed rear-facing with the 3-year-old, 35 lb. dummy, experienced significant cracking at the belt path when installed using lap/shoulder belt. These issues were not observed when the Scenera was tested rear-facing with the same dummy using the lower anchors instead. No similar issues were observed when the seat was tested forward-facing. Our thoughts and advice – even though the dummy remained contained throughout the test, use LATCH for rear-facing installation of this seat when possible.
Britax Roundabout G4: 2 of 3 Britax Roundabout (G4) seats tested forward-facing with the 6-year-old, 52 lb. dummy, experienced the seat’s internal harness pulling through the shell. Our thoughts and advice – the seat didn’t have problems when tested RF or FF with the 3-year-old dummy (35 lbs.) but issues were observed in 2 out of 3 forward-facing tests with the taller dummy that weighs 52 lbs. The Roundabout G4 is a smaller convertible seat and we can’t imagine 6-year-olds or kids weighing over 50 lbs. still fitting in this seat so we think it’s probably a moot point in the real world. But that’s not an excuse or a justification either. There are no issues or concerns about using this model when rear-facing.
Britax Boulevard G4 (results apply to Advocate G4 & Marathon G4; results do NOT apply to new “ClickTight” models): 2 of 2 Britax Boulevard (G4) seats tested forward-facing with the weighted 6-year-old dummy, weighing 62 lbs., experienced the seat’s internal harness pulling through the shell. Our thoughts and advice – the seat didn’t have the same problem when tested FF with the normal (unweighted) 6-year-old dummy (52 lbs.) but issues were observed in 2 out of 2 tests when they added another 10 lbs. to that dummy. Again, we really can’t imagine too many kids weighing over 60 lbs. still fitting in this seat so we think it’s probably not going to be an issue in real life. But again, that’s not meant to be an excuse or a justification. There are no issues or concerns about using this model (or the similar Advocate G4 model) when rear-facing.
Safety 1st Advance SE 65 Air+ (results should also apply to Advance LX and EX models): 2 of 2 Advance SE 65 Air+ seats tested forward-facing with the weighted 6-year-old dummy, weighing 62 lbs., experienced the seat’s internal harness pulling through the shell. Our thoughts and advice – the seat didn’t have the same problem when tested FF with the normal (unweighted) 6-year-old dummy (52 lbs.) but issues were observed in 2 out of 2 tests when they added another 10 lbs. to that dummy. Since this is a big, roomy seat, we think it’s possible that some kids might still fit comfortably beyond 52 lbs. so parents may want to discontinue using the seat at that point – even if their child technically still fits.
Should parents continue to use a seat that received a BASIC rating or replace it asap?
If you are a CPS Technician working in the field (or online), you should educate parents and caregivers on the scope of the potential issues with their seat so they can make fully informed decisions. Consumers should understand what the issues are and under what circumstances they occurred. They should know that even seats with a BASIC rating are still considered safe. They should be reminded that these particular seats with a BASIC rating all did okay in tests with different dummies or when installed by a different method. With the exception perhaps of the Recaro Performance RIDE convertible, which experienced structural failures forward-facing in 3 out of 4 tests using the 35 lb, 3-year-old dummy, nothing happened that was really too awful. These are VERY challenging new tests and we’re actually pleased with how few and far between the issues were.
Why are the full ratings available only to Consumer Reports subscribers?
CR is an independent, non-profit consumer group that doesn’t accept advertising or corporate donations. They purchase the carseats from retail markets, just like consumers do, and don’t accept free samples from manufacturers. Consumer Reports has a business model just like every other business that hopes to stay in business. And while they did provide several articles (links below) free of charge – the full ratings and reviews are available only to subscribers. It’s how they stay in business. For online subscribers, an annual subscription to ConsumerReports.org is just $26.
Both the Scenera NEXT and the Clek Foonf received a BETTER score for crash protection. Did a $50 convertible really perform as well as a $450 convertible?
Well… yes, and no. Both the $50 Scenera NEXT and the $450 Clek Foonf received a BETTER rating for crash protection. But remember what you know already about how the seats are tested based on their weight ratings. The Foonf and every other carseat rated to 65 lbs. was subjected to 2 additional crash tests using the larger, heavier, 6-year-old dummy. Seats like the Scenera NEXT and Combi Coccoro that are only rated to 40 lbs. were only tested with the 3-year-old dummy. So, in this case, you aren’t comparing apples to apples.
More info from Consumer Reports:
Info on infant carseats previously rated by Consumer Reports: