Every year, the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) releases their annual fit ratings of belt-positioning booster seats. Because proper seat belt fit on children is so important to their safety in a crash, having a booster seat that adjusts the seat belt easily for both parent and child is paramount. Fortunately, since the IIHS has released their ratings for years and given access to their testing protocol to manufacturers, we have many more excellent choices than ever before. This year IIHS evaluated 13 booster models as Best Bets.
What makes a “Best Bet” booster seat? The booster should correctly position the seat belt on a typical 4-8 year old child in most vehicles. A correctly positioned seat belt will fit low on the lap, touching the thighs, and cross the shoulders about half-way over the collarbone. The shoulder belt should move freely through the belt guide if you have a highback booster.
But remember, your vehicle may not be “most” vehicles and may have a different belt geometry. Always try before you buy, if you can, and hold onto the box and receipt in case you need to return the booster.
A “Good Bet” means that the belt fit will be acceptable in most vehicles and these boosters shouldn’t be automatically shunned because they aren’t “top tier.”
“Check Fit” means just that: it may fit a larger child better than a smaller child in some vehicles or vice versa. I’ve used “Check Fit” boosters quite successfully before with my kids in my cars—it definitely doesn’t mean you should chuck the seat out with the bathwater.
What Does Good Belt Fit Look Like?
Most kids need boosters until ages 10-12, news that can be shocking to many first-time parents. Seat belts are designed to fit adult bodies and until children reach adult size, they need a restraint that helps the seat belt fit them or they are at risk of severe injury or death in a crash. The 5-Step Test was designed to help parents determine when their kids fit safely in a seat belt without needing a booster seat.
Sometimes it can be confusing and not at all clear as to whether the seat belt is sitting on the child correctly or not. When evaluating belt fit, it’s always best to dress the child in tight-fitting clothes that don’t bunch; the worst outfit to choose is jeans and a sweatshirt.
Highback boosters with headwings generally have the shoulder belt guides attached and adjust in height. Please check your instruction manual on how to raise the headwings to adjust the shoulder belt position on your child’s shoulder. It’s not comfortable for your child to have the headwings pressing down on your child’s shoulders, or even behind their shoulders like we frequently see because parents don’t know to lift the wings up.
New Best Bet Boosters Tested for 2019
This is not an all-inclusive list – many boosters were rated in previous years. You can search all the booster ratings, current and previous years, by manufacturer HERE.
For the second time in as many years, there are no new boosters on the “Not Recommended” lists; however, that doesn’t mean there aren’t still Not Recommended boosters from past years still being used or for sale as leftover stock. One seat, the Safety 1st Summit 65, is still being manufactured. It is worth looking at the list to make sure a booster you’re using or considering isn’t on this list. These boosters demonstrate consistently poor belt fit.
What about the Incognito and Mifold?
The Safety 1st Incognito and Mifold are belt positioners, but not boosters; they don’t raise children up to position the seat belt on their bodies. As such, IIHS doesn’t rate them.
Given the number of Best Bet boosters available, chances are high that your booster kid is using one. However, if you’re using a booster that doesn’t garner that coveted Best Bet label, remember to do a fit check yourself in every vehicle you use the booster in since seat belt geometry varies so much. If you have a booster on the Not Recommended list, we do suggest that you find a dedicated belt-positioning booster from the Best Bet list and it need not break the bank.
If you’d like more guidance on which booster to choose, we have our own list of Recommended Carseats with a section on booster seats.
Some Combination Harness/Booster Carseats Break in CR’s Crash Testing
This week 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. There are many popular seats in this category including the Graco Nautilus, Evenflo Maestro and Chicco MyFit.
The article from Consumer Reports has 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, and 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) but we don’t have an estimate on when everything will be ready. From what we know, they are finishing the analysis of crash results but still need to complete the ease-of-use and fit-to-vehicle criteria in order to calculate the final overall score for each seat in this category. 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. If you are feeling uneasy and want to use a seat that you know did well in their testing, the Graco Milestone All-in-One, Graco 4Ever 4-in-1, and Chicco NextFit Convertible have already earned a “BEST” rating for crash protection in the convertible or all-in-one category. Keep in mind seats in CR’s convertible category, such as the Chicco NextFit, do not convert to belt-positioning boosters.
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.
You may have heard that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently updated their recommendations on rear-facing. As usual, there’s some good news and some bad news. As with our carseat reviews, we will discuss both the good and the not-so-good and try to offer some perspective lacking in national news coverage of this update.
The Good News: The basic recommendation for rear-facing has NOT changed. “The Academy continues to recommend that all children ride in a rear-facing car safety seat as long as possible, up to the manufacturer’s stated weight and length limits.” This updated guidance from the AAP now better matches NHTSA’s policy for consistency in messaging. The authors of CarseatBlog have strongly supported Extended Rear-Facing (ERF) for over 15 years and continue to support this practice.
ERF in 2003 – now off to college!
The Bad News:As we reported a year ago, a major study from 2007 was found to be flawed. This study was the main source of injury data to compare rear-facing child restraint systems (RFCRS) to forward-facing child restraints (FFCRS) in the USA, for children up to 23 months old. It was also the basis for the erroneous ‘Rear-facing is 5x safer’ statistic. Newer research found some contradictory data, causing the original study to be retracted. A revised study, by some of the authors of the original 2007 study, concluded, “Non-US field data and laboratory tests support the recommendation that children be kept in RFCRS for as long as possible, but the US NASS-CDS field data are too limited to serve as a strong statistical basis for these recommendations.” This led to the evolving AAP advice that, “…while the trend was for rear-facing to be superior to forward-facing for children under 2 years, the numbers were too low to reach statistical significance.” Definitely not as compelling as 5x safer.
More Good News: The reason there is no significant real-world information is because the sample size of injuries to children in car seats is so low during the 22 year study period that there simply isn’t enough data to compare rear-facing to forward-facing conclusively. In fact, all these studies included less than severe injuries just to do an analysis, because there are so few data points for severe/fatal injuries to kids in child restraints. According to the revised study, “NASS-CDS data indicate an extremely low injury rate in children up to 2 years of age in both RFCRS and FFCRS.“ It turns out that both rear-facing and forward-facing car seats do a very good job of protecting children within the relevant age/weight/height limits!
Because the real-world injury data in the USA no longer supports that rear-facing is significantly safer for kids up to 23 months old, the AAP removed the portion of their policy statement recommending that kids remain rear-facing until at least 2 years old. Also, since the original study is retracted, we have to pretend that it never existed. Therefore, we can no longer claim that rear-facing is proven to be five times safer than forward-facing. We can’t even say that statistics prove that rear-facing reduces the real-world risk of serious injury for kids up to 2 years old [or to any age] in the USA. On the plus side, the 2011 AAP policy on rear-facing to at least age 2 led to a lot of awareness about the safety advantages of rear-facing.
Let’s take a step back and examine the most recent AAP policy statements to put these minimum age recommendations in perspective. Fundamentally, the policies on rear-facing haven’t changed, except for the inclusion of minimums. For over 15 years, the AAP has continued to recommend that kids remain rear-facing to the limits of their car safety seat. In essence, “as long as possible.”
AAP 2018: All infants and toddlers should ride in a rear-facing car safety seat (CSS) as long as possible, until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by their CSS’s manufacturer. Most convertible seats have limits that will permit children to ride rear-facing for 2 years or more.
AAP 2011: All infants and toddlers should ride in a rear-facing car safety seat (CSS) until they are 2 years of age or until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by the manufacturer of their CSS.
AAP 2002: Children should face the rear of the vehicle until they are at least one year of age and weigh at least 20 lb. Infants younger than one year who weigh 20 lb should still face the back of the car in a convertible seat or one that is approved for higher weights. For optimal protection, the child should remain facing the rear of the car until reaching the maximum weight for the car safety seat, as long as the top of the child’s head is below the top of the seat back.
Clearly, this is not the end for extended rear-facing. The retraction of the main study supporting ERF in the USA is indeed a big loss, but not a total surprise because this study had known flaws long before this retraction. Again, the fundamental guidance HAS NOT CHANGED. We still recommend kids remain rear-facing, preferably for 2 years or longer if they are within the rear-facing height and weight limits of their carseat. In particular, parents should pay close attention to the seated torso height limit of the rear-facing seat (which typically requires 1″ or more of shell above the head).
As always, we like to remind parents that these recommendations from the AAP are safest practice guidelines. They aren’t rules or laws. The rules a parent must follow are those printed in their car seat and vehicle owners manuals, on the car seat labels and in any relevant state law. CarseatBlog endorses the AAP guidelines for added safety. We also like to offer perspective by looking at the BIG picture. The biggest reductions in risk come from the following simple steps:
Drive unimpaired and undistracted
Keep all passengers properly restrained according to the instruction manuals and state law
Kids under 13 years in an appropriate rear seating position
Updated Recommendations for Children in Carseats and Boosters
A revised policy statement on Child Passenger Safety from the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) was released today. The most significant change is the removal of the age 2 minimum recommendation for forward-facing. The updated policy keeps the basic wording to recommend that children remain rear-facing until they reach the maximum weight or height allowances of their carseat. This revision aligns AAP’s policy with NHTSA’s current recommendations which also suggest using your carseat to the limits before transitioning to the next stage/category of seats.
The table below outlines the updated Best Practice Recommendations from the AAP.
The policy revision is a direct result of the retraction of the 2007 Henary study which we now know was flawed. Unfortunately at this moment, we do not have enough data to definitively say how much safer rear-facing is compared with forward-facing. Also we can no longer point to a specific age at which to make the transition from rear-facing to forward-facing. We acknowledge that this revision will cause some confusion to parents and caregivers who have previously been told that the AAP recommendation was to rear-face to a minimum of 2 years. Currently there are 11 states with laws that mandate rear-facing to age 2, and there are also carseats on the market which also mandate a 2-year age minimum for forward-facing. If you live in a state that requires rear-facing to age 2, or if you own a product with a 2-year age minimum for forward-facing then you must follow the guidance of your state laws and/or your manufacturer’s instructions.
The AAP used a data-driven approach in revising this policy. In the absence of statistically significant field data to support the previous rear-facing to age 2 recommendation, they felt it was necessary to update their current policy.
We understand that evolving information can be hard sometimes and the lack of good data is frustrating. On the bright side, the reason that we don’t have enough data on kids being injured in carseats, rear-facing or forward-facing, is because carseats are doing a great job of protecting children in crashes. We encourage researchers and manufacturers to continue important research on this and a variety of other subjects that relate to child passenger safety. Here at CarseatBlog we will continue to focus our efforts on educating parents and caregivers on proper usage of carseats and boosters.