Child Car Seat Safety - Do You Know What Consumer Reports is Telling You?

Aug 17, 2006 (Updated Jan 21, 2007)

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The Bottom Line Install it right and use it right - that is what makes a car seat safe.

The best car seat is the one that fits your vehicle, fits your child, fits your budget and will be used correctly every single time.

I am continually amazed at the number of people who tout the safety record of their car seat, but when asked for clarification about facts they just spewed get that “deer in the head lights” look. It’s not that these parents don’t care, they are just underinformed about car seat testing and safety. A lack of clear information from any source leads them to believe that any information they can find is the gospel of car seat safety often that is Consumer Reports. Choose to believe whomever or whatever source you deem reliable, just make sure you know what they are telling you.

What is Consumer Reports Telling You?
When parents are looking to buy a new car seat the first thing many do is pick up the latest issue of Consumer Reports with car seat ratings. Consumer Reports is great for things like washing machines and refrigerators, but not necessarily the best source for car seats. Why? You child’s life is at stake, not a bath towel or a gallon milk.

The biggest fault most car safety experts find with CR testing is that no one knows how they are testing the seats. The do not allow anyone to oversee their testing procedures and provide very little information on exactly what they do. This isn’t really a big deal when deciding which treadmill is the best, but it is with car seats. Maybe the car seat that is the best fit for your car ends up at the bottom of the Consumer Report’s list, so you pass it up based on some undisclosed testing procedures with results no one else ever seems to be able to duplicate. Do you really want to rely on results when you can’t be sure the test was even done correctly? Is it fair to label a product as failure if you haven’t used it in the manner it was designed?

Over the years Consumer Reports has shared a few things about their testing procedures. They do not test rear or roll-over collisions, and until recently they did not test side impact either, often considered to be the deadliest crashes. Many parents search out seats with side impact protection yet CR doesn’t test the seats in that manner. Their results are based on limited testing that does not necessarily reflect real world use and expectations.

Consumer Reports is well known for their circle rating system. However they really don’t explain how they turn their raw data into those visual ratings. Without that information, once the data is normalized, it is quite possible that a minor difference can be exaggerated to change a result from very good to poor; we have no way of knowing.

Most Infant Seats are Dangerous?
Consumer Reports recently released their latest car seat safety report, and a few days later they were retracting it when it was shown they made a significant error in the calculation of the speed of a side impact crash; almost double the speed of what they initially reported and unlikely to happen in the real world. Very few people are at a dead stop in the middle on an intersection when involved in a direct side impact crash by someone maintaining a steady 70 MPH speed.

While Consumer Reports promises to reevaluate all of the seats and test them correctly, how do we really know? Could the next set of data be just as flawed? Is it possible that the only two infant seats Consumer Reports deemed safe in their first set of test actually fail when test properly?

Many parents like to use infant seats because they are easy to take in and out of the car. A base is installed in the car using either LATCH connectors or the car's seat belt. From then on the infant's bucket seat can be locked in place quickly and easily with just a squeeze of a handle. I do have to agree with Consumer Reports that this is not the safest way to install a car seat. Most infant car seats can be installed without the base using the car's seat belt. This is a better, though admittedly less convenient, way to install an infant car seat.

The Britax Marathon is an Unsafe Seat?
In 2006 Consumer Reports rated the Britax Marathon seat poorly because in their testing the seat tipped too far while rear facing with a 33 lb dummy using LATCH to connect the car seat to the sled. The problem was not an issue when the seat was installed using the car’s seat belt. Many people are quick to jump to the conclusion that the Marathon isn’t safe. Well neither Britax nor the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the government agency that tests car seats) can get the Marathon to fail in this manner. Why? Most likely the Marathon with LATCH simply isn’t a good fit for the sled CR uses in their testing. That doesn’t mean that the seat isn’t a good fit for your car or child or that it isn’t safe. It simply means that your child should not ride on the CR testing sled in Britax Marathon rear facing with LATCH connections only; and you probably weren’t planning on that anyway.

The overall score Consumer Reports gives seats is based only on a LATCH installation. If your car does not have LATCH or you choose not to use it the overall score CR bestows on any car seat doesn’t mean squat. Many parents like the LATCH connection system because it is easy, but that doesn’t necessarily make it safe. I had a difficult time getting one of our seats tight with the LATCH connectors. That doesn’t mean it is a bad seat, it just wasn’t a good fit. Once installed with the seat belt it was as tight as it should be. No one car seat can fit every car. If a dress fit you would you refuse to buy it simply because it didn’t fit your mother or husband too? Don’t buy (or not buy) a car seat because of how the seat fits someone else’s car or child. It only matters how the seat works in your vehicle.

In past issues Consumer Reports highly rated the Britax Marathon for safety. The car seat has remained basically unchanged for years and yet suddenly the seat does not pass their testing. Has CR been recommending an unsafe seat for years or are their tests simply unrepeatable and unreliable? How are parents to know if the seat CR lauds today won’t be at the bottom of the list next year?

The Evenflo Titan is the Best?
Consumer Reports puts the Evenflo Titan at the very top of their convertible car seat list. So shouldn’t everyone go out and buy the “best” car seat, especially since it sells for around $70? If parents are going to blindly follow Consumer Reports’ ratings there isn’t any reason to look below the top line, right?

Well, the seat has a reputation, in the real world, of having a harness that is difficult to tighten properly against your child. I’m sure, on an open sled with all of the space in the world the Titan’s harness is as easy to adjust. The seat isn’t very well padded, but comfort doesn’t mean a lot to a crash test dummy. The seat can be difficult to install and seems to have more car / seat compatibility problems than most child safety seats. Sure it fits well on the test sled but I drive my kids around in a car. Most car seat experts, who install and use seats in the real world, would not recommend the Evenflo Titan because it is difficult to use. Since Consumer Reports does nit include something as important as harness adjustment in their ratings it is no wonder that it is rated so highly. If their results don’t accurately represent real world experience of ease of use can you really trust their crash test data?

So often parents say, “you can’t put a price on your child’s safety.” Well Consumer Reports can, and in fact they do. Consumer Reports figures price into their recommendations even if you as a parent don’t. The $70 price tag is no doubt part of the reason that the Evenflo Titan is on top of the Consumer Reports’ list. Keeping your budget in mind is important but safety ratings should leave price out of a ranking and let parents figure budget into their decision.

Consumer Reports is Not All Bad
Just because most car seat experts think Consumer Reports’ ratings are highly inaccurate doesn’t mean they don’t have some good to offer as well. Consumer Reports has done a lot to increase awareness for booster seat use and extended rear facing beyond the 1 year and 20 lb minimum. The did a lot of work to highlight the potential dangers of booster seats with narrow belt guides instead of the safer “open loop” design. As a jumping off point Consumer Reports is a good place to start for concise and accurate general information about car seats, just be careful before you trust your child’s life to unsubstantiated data.

It Bears Repeating
The best car seat is the one that fits your vehicle, fits your child, fits your budget and will be used correctly every single time.

You can purchase Consumer Reports’ most highly rated seat, but it isn’t going to protect your child any better if you aren’t using the seat properly. Proper use includes installing the car seat using the best method for your car, not necessarily what you perceive as the easiest, and getting it checked by an expert. It means that everyone who buckles your child into the seat understands the importance of tightening the harness and positioning the chest clip at the correct height. If you don’t use your child’s seat correctly it doesn’t matter what Consumer Reports says about your seat.

If you really want your child in the safest seat buy from a store that will accept the car seat back if it does not fit either your child or your vehicle properly. A good place to start is with other parents’ experiences with their car seats and vehicles.

Then take the seat and the instruction manual, your vehicle and (if possible) your child to an appointment at an inspection station

to ensure this seat is going to perform as you expect it to in your vehicle.

Final Thoughts
There is no doubt that there is a lack of good reliable testing data on car seats available to parents. That doesn’t make the information you get from Consumer Reports good. Worry more how your child’s car seat fits in your vehicle and using it properly rather than how the seat performs on a sled and you will provide your child with the safest seat possible.

Car Seats
Fisher Price Voyager
Britax Marathon
Britax Regent
Cosco Safety 1st Apex
Evenflo Triumph 5
Turbo Booster Safe Seat
Evenflo Comet Booster
Cosco Scenera
Graco Turbo Backless Booster
Evenflo Big Kid Booster

Car Seat Expiration Date
How to Install Car Seats

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