Some Combination Harness/Booster Carseats Break in CR’s Crash Testing
In October 2018, Consumer Reports published an article which detailed some of their findings during crash testing of a category of car seats better known as Combination Seats. Also known as harnessed booster seats, harness-2-booster seats, or toddler booster seats, these are forward-facing only carseats with a 5-point harness that can also be used as a booster seat utilizing the vehicle’s seatbelt.
The article from Consumer Reports created quite a buzz and we know that our readers are looking to us to provide thoughtful and reasonable commentary on this issue. Keep in mind that until the crash test results and full rating of all the combination seats tested in this round are released, we are forced to focus on the limited information we have been provided with so far. As always, we will do our best to present the facts in a clear and concise manner so that parents can understand the scope of the issues and CPS Technicians can help educate the families we work with.
Here’s what we know so far, “In CR’s crash evaluations, testers found that the load-bearing components at the rear of the seats broke when tested with dummies whose weight was near the seat’s limits for its harness system.” The Britax Frontier ClickTight Harness-2-Booster, Britax Pioneer Harness-2-Booster, Cosco Finale DX, Graco Atlas & Harmony Defender 360 all experienced some sort of structural damage during this very challenging crash test. The Britax Pinnacle ClickTight Harness-2-Booster wasn’t tested but is very similar to the Frontier model. Therefore, it’s possible that the Pinnacle would have experienced issues similar to what was observed with the Frontier if it had been tested.
Before we get into what went wrong, it’s essential that you understand more about the Consumer Reports crash test and how it differs from the federal government’s crash test that all carseats need to pass in order to be sold in this country.
Why did Consumer Reports create their own, unique crash test for child restraints that already pass all the safety standards in Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (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. are required to meet FMVSS 213 standards but we also know all carseats aren’t the same. The goal here was to determine which seats could hold up well under tougher crash test conditions that were also more “real world” than the 213 compliance tests.
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 only belts 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. Unless you’re driving around town with your kids secured in the back seat of a ’73 Impala (with LATCH anchors), 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 below) 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 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 crashworthiness.
Is a crash test at 35 MPH really that much different than a test run at 30 MPH?
Yes, it can be a very big difference. An additional 5 miles per hour may not seem like a big deal, but the difference can increase the energy in a crash by almost 40%. Combined with a more severe crash “pulse”, the peak forces on an occupant could even double.
How many crash tests were each combination seat model subjected to?
Each model was subjected to several different crash tests (using a new seat each time) depending on the weight rating of the product. All of these seats were tested with the Hybrid III 3-year-old dummy (ATD) who weighs 35 lbs. All of these seats were also tested with the Hybrid III 6-year-old ATD who weighs 52 lbs. The seats rated up to 65 lbs. (Finale & Defender) or 70 lbs. (Britax Pioneer) were also tested with the 6-year-old ATD who was weighted using a standard weight kit from NHTSA that adds an additional 10 lbs., making the ATD weigh a total of 62 lbs. Since the Britax Frontier ClickTight is rated up to 90 lbs. using the harness, this seat was tested with both the 6-year-old ATD and the 10-year-old ATD. This was the only seat in all the combination seats Consumer Reports tested that was subjected to testing with the 10-year-old dummy who weighs 78 lbs. It’s also the only combination seat on the market that is rated up to 90 lbs. with the harness.
Britax Frontier ClickTight Crash Test Results:
The headrest adjustment and harness support structures on the Frontier ClickTight broke when tested with the 6-year-old dummy (ATD) who weighs 52 lbs. The Frontier CT was not tested with the weighted 6-year-old ATD since its harness capacity is 90 lbs. Instead, it was tested with the 10-year-old ATD who weighs 78 lbs. In this very severe test, the supporting structure around the metal retention bar on the back of the shell broke, and the retention bar and harness pulled through the back of the shell. When this occurred, the harness loosened significantly. This is definitely not the news anyone wants to hear, but keep in mind that the Britax Frontier CT (and the similar Pinnacle CT model) pass all federal crash test standards when tested with these same ATDs (both the 6-yr-old and the 10-yr-old). The Consumer Reports crash test was designed to be more challenging in order to establish which child safety seats provide additional margins of safety above and beyond the federal crash test standards (FMVSS 213). Since the Frontier ClickTight had issues in their testing, it receives only a “BASIC” rating for crash protection, meaning that it meets all the required and necessary standards from NHTSA (the federal government) but it does not provide greater margins of safety, in their opinion, when tested with the bigger ATDs who weigh more than 50 lbs. For the record, there were no issues observed when Consumer Reports tested the Frontier CT with the smaller 3-year-old ATD.
According to a statement from Britax:
“The Britax Harness-2-Boosters tested by Consumer Reports are safe when used as intended and in accordance with the instructions and warnings contained in the user guides.” Britax also said the company would “continue to stay engaged with Consumer Reports to benefit from their perspective.”
Britax Pioneer Crash Test Results:
The headrest adjustment and harness support structures of the Britax Pioneer broke when tested with the 6-year-old dummy (ATD) who weighs 52 lbs. Since the Pioneer is rated to 70 lbs. with the harness, it was tested again with the weighted 6-year-old ATD (62 lbs.). In each of the tests with the 6-year-old ATD and the weighted 6-year-old ATD, the headrest adjustment and harness support structures broke but the harness did not pull through. Since the Pioneer had issues in CR testing, it receives only a “BASIC” rating for crash protection, meaning that it meets all the required and necessary standards from NHTSA (the federal government) but it does not provide greater margins of safety, in their opinion, when tested with the bigger ATDs who weigh more than 50 lbs. The Pioneer did not exhibit any structural issues when tested with the 3-year-old ATD.
Cosco Finale Crash Test Results:
The structure that anchors the tether strap to the shell broke in 3 out of 3 tests with the 6-year-old dummy (ATD). This enabled the tether strap to extend, which resulted in increased head excursion (meaning the dummy moved farther forward than it would have otherwise). This occurred in both tests with the 6-year-old ATD (52 lbs.) and in a single test conducted with the weighted 6-year-old ATD (62 lbs.) This breakage also resulted in pieces of sharp plastic in areas that may contact the child. Due to these issues, the Cosco Finale receives only a “BASIC” rating for crash protection, meaning that it meets all the required and necessary standards from NHTSA but it does not provide additional margins of safety, in their opinion, when tested with the bigger ATDs who weigh more than 50 lbs. When tested with the 3-year-old ATD, the Finale did show signs of stress in the tether area, but it did not break through.
Dorel Juvenile, the parent company for Cosco, responded in a statement by saying:
“The Dorel Cosco Finale combination child restraint has performed well with respect to all NHTSA crash performance requirements and in real-world use. There are over 350,000 Finales in use and there have been no injuries reported.” The company noted that CR’s testing varies from NHTSA’s standards. “Dorel takes the results of the Consumer Reports testing seriously and is currently evaluating the findings,” the statement said.
Harmony Defender 360 Crash Test Results:
The support hardware on the back of the shell (near the shoulder area) broke in 3 out of 4 tests with the 6-year-old dummy (ATD). This allowed the harness to “pull through” the shell and loosen as the dummy moved forward. This occurred in one test with the 6-year-old ATD (52 lbs.) and in both tests with the weighted 6-year-old ATD (62 lbs.) Due to these issues, the Harmony Defender receives only a “BASIC” rating for crash protection, meaning that it meets all the required and necessary standards from NHTSA but it does not provide additional margins of safety, in their opinion, when tested with the bigger ATDs who weigh more than 50 lbs. The Defender did not exhibit any structural issues when tested with the 3-year-old ATD.
Response from Harmony:
In a statement to CR, Harmony stated that its seat meets all current U.S. federal standards. The company also said that CR’s testing “did not take into account practical matters such as how the car seat fits or installs into vehicles, which affects overall safety greatly …” Harmony pointed to what it described as “several discrepancies within Consumer Reports’ testing that differs from other testing, both independent and internal” that would “impact the testing results greatly.” The company did note that it “appreciates all comments from customers as well as independent bodies such as Consumer Reports as all such information is always used in the ongoing improvements of all our products.”
If you already own a Britax Frontier or Pioneer: If your child meets the weight and height criteria for using the Frontier/Pioneer in booster mode (at least 40 lbs. and 45″ tall), consider whether or not your child may be ready to use the seat as a booster. Consumer Reports recommends switching to booster mode at 40 pounds or replacing the seat. We suggest that parents make their own choice on when to transition to booster mode based on the child’s maturity and booster readiness. If your child isn’t developmentally ready to ride safely in a booster (most kids under age 5 are not, but there are exceptions), and you don’t have another appropriate seat to put them in, then leave your child in the harness.
Reality can’t always be ideal and there are tradeoffs in situations like this. Every parent or caregiver has to weigh the pros and cons and make decisions based on their personal circumstances. If you have a child who meets the weight and height criteria for using the Frontier or Pioneer in booster mode but the child is too immature to stay properly seated in booster mode (using just the seatbelt), or if the child has special needs which make a 5-point harness necessary, then the risks of using the seat as a booster probably outweigh the potential risks of experiencing some sort of structural failure in a severe crash. However, if you are keeping your neurotypical 8-year-old in the Frontier or Pioneer harness just because he/she still fits, you may want to reconsider.
If you already own a Cosco Finale: Consumer Reports recommends switching to booster mode use at 40 pounds (as long as the child is at least 43″ tall) or replacing the seat. We think parents should make their own choice on when to transition to booster mode based on the child’s maturity and booster readiness. If your child isn’t developmentally ready to ride safely in a booster (most kids under age 5 are not, but there are exceptions), and you don’t have another appropriate seat to put them in, then leave your child in the harness. If the child is too immature to stay properly seated in a booster (using just the seatbelt), or if the child has special needs which make a 5-point harness necessary, then the risks of using the seat as a booster probably outweigh the potential risks of experiencing some sort of structural failure in a severe crash.
If you decide to use the Finale as a booster, please note that the shoulder belt guide is problematic in some cars, not allowing the seatbelt to retract properly. However, the shoulder belt guide on Finale is only required when it’s necessary to achieve proper belt fit and therefore it can be skipped for many taller kids who don’t need it for proper shoulder belt positioning.
If you already own a Harmony Defender 360: Given that the harness pulled through the shell in 3 of 4 tests at 52-62 pounds, we suggest that parents consider switching their child to booster mode if the child weighs more than 40 pounds, they fit well, and they are mature enough to ride in a booster full-time. Otherwise, we agree with Consumer Reports that a replacement harnessed seat should be found, though the Defender could be used with the harness until a replacement is available.
If you’re shopping for a new carseat: The complete CR crash test results and rating of all the combination seats tested in this round will be released soon (available to subscribers). UPDATE: COMPLETE RATINGS NOW AVAILABLE
To their credit, CR’s policy on all the products and services they evaluate is to report any issues they identify in testing as soon as they are validated, even if the full ratings aren’t finished yet.
Additionally, while we don’t know for certain, we anticipate that the Graco Nautilus, Graco Nautilus SnugLock, Evenflo Maestro Sport, Evenflo Transitions/Evolve and Chicco MyFit will all be included in this round of testing. We don’t expect there to be any major issues with these combination seats simply because they would have been called out already if there were. However, none of these seats are rated beyond 65 lbs. with the harness. The Britax Harness-2-Booster seats are still the only combination seats on the market with harness weight limits above 65 lbs. Considering how problematic it is to test and pass regular FMVSS 213 crash testing with the 10-year-old ATD, it’s unlikely that we will see any other manufacturer introduce new products with harness weight limits beyond 65 lbs.
Final thoughts and comments:
We understand that this news is stressful to parents and caregivers who already own these seats. We’re not going to sugar coat the situation or tell you to ignore the Consumer Reports findings. Everyone needs to find their own comfort level with this new information. Some parents and caregivers will lose confidence in the products they are using and others won’t. Some will look for alternative products while others will continue to use the seats they have. Some will transition the child to booster mode while others will continue to use the harness. We can’t tell you what the best choice in your situation is. What we can do is provide you with all the information you need to make the best possible decisions based on the available information. Ultimately, it’s always the parent or caregivers responsibility to make the decisions on how the child will ride in the vehicle. For those of us who are CPS Technicians, this is our gospel. We stay current and up-to-date in this constantly evolving field so we can educate others. Sometimes there are no easy answers but it’s our responsibility to provide accurate and unbiased information so parents and caregivers can make informed decisions.