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A few years ago we brought you a “review” of an illegal foreign car seat to explain why people shouldn’t buy them. Seats like these would pop up now and then but were mostly off our radar for a long time…until recently. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen dozens of references to them, so we felt it was time for another post, this time debunking many of the claims and explaining the various ways these seats do not meet federal safety regulations.

What is it?

One problem in determining exactly what’s wrong with these seats is that there are so many different versions of them, each with slightly different descriptions. It’s also impossible to actually contact a manufacturer to ask questions because no manufacturer information is listed anywhere (which is, in itself, a violation of U.S. standards…but we’ll get to that in a minute).

First, we need to determine what category of child restraint these things are. They’re marketed as a harnessed car seat: Attach the restraint to your seat, buckle in your kid, and go! The thing is, harnessed child restraints are required to be installed with either a seatbelt or with LATCH. This “restraint” doesn’t include lower anchor straps or a tether strap, and it’s “installed” with some straps and rings, not with a seatbelt at all. So if it is, indeed, meant to act as a 5-point child restraint, it’s automatically out of compliance because it doesn’t install with LATCH or a seatbelt.

Sometimes the listings and/or paltry instructions that come with the seats also say that you also should/must buckle the seatbelt around the child. In that case, the seat is actually functioning like a booster seat or a wearable harness, both of which have their own requirements that these products do not meet.

Since inconsistencies keep us from actually determining what the heck these things even are, let’s explore some other issues.

Either Way, There are Problems

From a regulatory standpoint, it matters whether this thing is meant to be used with a seatbelt or not. From a practical standpoint, there are problems either way.

This crash test, which we shared in our other review, shows what happens when the seat is used without a seatbelt:

I don’t have a crash test of the seat used with the seatbelt, but I do have a video showing the likely issues this seat has in restraining a child, with or without one:

Placement in the car

What the ads won’t tell you—but the “instructions” might—is that you really need a captain’s chair to “properly” install these seats. I’ve had two of these seats now (for instructional purposes) and both have specified that the bottom part of the straps must go through the seat bight (where the back and bottom of the vehicle seat meet) and the top part of the straps go over the vehicle seat (through the bars of the raised headrest), and then they’re connected in the by looping the straps through rings.

This would be near impossible to accomplish on a bench seat, even one whose back folds down, meaning you could only use this in second-row captain’s chairs or in the front seat. From the photos that accompany these “restraints,” the front seat is clearly the intended location.

However, we know that children are better protected in the back seat. (It’s even part of the federal standard for carseat instructions to say so.) We also know that some states prohibit children from riding in the front seat, with a few exceptions. (“I just got this really cheap seat off the internet!” is not one of those exceptions.)

In any case, this seat “installs” with webbing and rings that probably aren’t as strong as what you’d find on a belt to hold up your pants. It’s extremely easy to loosen and in no way meets federal standards for holding a child restraint in place.

Labeling and Manuals

Child restraints sold in the U.S. need to have labels—a lot of labels, actually. Some people might shake their heads and grumble about red tape and bureaucracy, but the labels serve an important purpose. Some labels tell us what size kid can go in the restraint. It’s crucial to know how big or small a child must be to safely use any given carseat.

Guess what? These seats don’t have any labels that tell us when a kid is too big or too small. Some online listings for the seats might give a weight range. Some might give an age range. None gives a height range. And those are only the online listings. Neither of the actual products I’ve had provide that information on the seats themselves or in the required instruction manual.

Here’s a photo of the “instruction manual” for this pink seat:

The blurbs with yellow bullets are English. Five whole sentences of instruction. That’s it.

U.S. seats must also provide the name and contact information for either the manufacturer or the U.S. distributor if the manufacturer is in another country. Do these seats contain those labels? Of course not.

Do they contain the required registration card so consumers can be contacted in case of a recall? I’ll let you guess. (Answer: No.)

Who is this for?

Since these seats don’t have labels, and since the online descriptions are all over the place, it can be hard to know what size child these seats are designed for. One popular site lists no weight, height, or age requirements at all. A current listing on Amazon says it’s for kids 9-28 kg and 1-5 years (an improvement over the 6 month minimum on a listing from a few years ago, but still not good).

Seats sold in the U.S. are required to include English (not just metric) measurements, but thanks to Google, we know that 9 kg is about 20 pounds and 28 kg is about 60 pounds. Because there are no other instructions on knowing when the seat is outgrown (torso height, shoulder placement, overall height, etc.) I can assume that my 40-lb. 5-year-old child would be perfectly safe in this. (Note: He’s not.)

I was actually surprised at how well he fit in it. After all, the straps still came from just above his shoulders! But as we discussed in the video up above, there’s nothing safely restraining him when it’s used as a “5-point harness,” and nothing but a loose lap belt, at best, restraining him when it’s used with a seatbelt.

Incidentally, that’s the same kid from my original review five years ago:

Certification

We’ve already determined some of the ways these seats don’t meet U.S. standards (and if you don’t meet them all, you’re automatically non-compliant). The interesting thing is that these seats usually aren’t even advertised as meeting federal standards (although that claim does sometimes crop up in a description or an Amazon “Question & Answer” section.)

One popular site selling these seats claims that they are 3C and ECE certified and meet external testing certification ISO9001. That sounds impressive, but it’s ultimately meaningless. The ISO certification applies to quality control, not safety. The 3C certification allows products to be sold in China. Europe has ECE standards that include carseat safety regulations, but there are also ECE standards that have nothing to do with carseats, and these products don’t specify which standard they supposedly meet. Child restraints in Europe must comply with ECE R44 04 and/or ECE R129. I’m not an expert on European car seat regulations, but I’m positive these seats don’t meet current crash test requirements for Europe, just like there’s no way they could meet crash test requirements for the United States.

A product’s description can include some fancy regulation numbers, but that doesn’t mean anything. It’s like many aftermarket products sold in the U.S. that claim to meet FMVSS 213…except FMVSS 213 doesn’t have standards for aftermarket products. Sometimes there’s some legitimacy to the claim (a carseat could be successfully tested with a product installed) but sometimes there’s just no way to know what that means.

In this case, I can’t tell that these seats are (or even claim to be) certified for use in a moving vehicle in any country on earth.

Other Uses

One online description says this can be used on airplanes. Maybe there are parents out there who realize this device is unsafe for cars but think it would be a fabulous solution for air travel.

It wouldn’t.

First, because it doesn’t meet certification standards for the U.S. or (as far as I can tell…and as far as any airline employee could tell) any foreign government, it cannot be used during taxi, takeoff, or landing, which are the most dangerous portions of a flight. An airline could, at its discretion, allow it to be used during the cruising portion of the flight. But that would mean you’d have to install it mid-flight, which would require having someone else wrangle your kid while you ask the people behind you to stand up (or you grope around in front of them) while you route straps around the seatback. I don’t see that going too well.

The description also says you can use it on a dining chair or in a stroller. I suppose that’s possible, but even then I’m not so sure. I did install it on my kitchen chair to see how it would work. It was okay, but not great. The straps are extremely long (since they’re meant to go around a tall, thick vehicle seat) and therefore not very practical for use on a small chair. It also wasn’t tremendously stable since there’s nothing holding it in place at the seat of the chair, and it seems that the straps around the back of the chair could slip off without a ton of difficulty. (You can’t tighten it down too much since the straps attach to the area where the kid sits, and over-tightening would cause that part to lift off the seat.)

Bottom line: Even if you think this would work for some other application, don’t encourage these companies by buying these products. Buy something specifically designed for your needs.

What Can I Use?

There are options available for portable car seats. They might not all be as portable as these floppy foreign seats, but they are tested to U.S. safety standards and—more importantly—they pass!

One very similar product (but a safe one, because it requires actual seatbelts and actually passes crash testing) is the Ride Safer Travel Vest. We have a review here, and the distributor has an article about what makes their products safe.

Kids need to be at least 3 years old to use the vests, but if you need something with a lower age minimum you could consider the IMMI Go if the vehicle you’re using has a top tether anchor.

Of course, we recommend that children remain rear-facing as long as possible. For that, you’ll need a traditional child seat, but we’ve compiled a list of good seats for traveling (narrow, lightweight) to help you out.

For kids over 4 years and 40 pounds, we like the BubbleBum as a portable solution. (Beware of BubbleBum imposters, though.)

Bottom Line

Don’t rely on reviews from general consumers on sites like Amazon. Sometimes consumers might be misinformed or, even worse, they’re not consumers at all but paid shills. If you see a carseat that seems interesting, do some research. Check to see that it’s a legitimate company manufacturing the seats. If you’re not familiar with the company, do an internet search (it might be a legitimate one you haven’t heard of). Search for reviews of seats at CarseatBlog or other reputable sites that provide safety information. If you still have questions, you can always ask us at our Facebook page, too.

And again: If something seems too good to be true, it likely is.