February 22, 2014 4 min read
By Catey Hill, MarketWatch
Parents trust car seats to protect their children in the event of an accident. So it may come as a surprise to many that manufacturers are not required to do side-impact crash tests on the seats.
And it’s probably only slightly comforting that proposed federal regulations would change that. What about the seat your child is currently riding in, you may be wondering — is it safe?
On Wednesday, the National Highway Traffic Administration proposed an upgrade to its existing car-seat regulations that would, for the first time, require car-seat manufacturers to demonstrate that they can withstand side-impact crashes of up to 30 miles per hour for children up to 40 pounds. The current regulations require only that car-seat manufacturers prove they can withstand front-impact crashes. The NHTA estimates that enacting this new rule, which has been in the works for years and which follows a directive from Congress, would prevent five deaths and 64 injuries each year.
The new side-impact test would use a dummy of a one-year-old child and a three-year-old child and require manufacturers to show that their car seat prevents head and other injuries. The test would simulate a T-bone crash, with one car moving at 15 miles an hour getting its side door slammed into by a car moving at 30 miles an hour. In a statement, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said that “today’s proposal will give parents and car-seat makers important new data on how car seats perform in side crashes.” The new rule is subject to a 90-day comment period, after which the government will issue its final ruling on the issue; once the final ruling is announced, car-seat manufacturers will have a full three years to comply with it.
Many parents think they’re already getting side-impact protection, because car-seat manufacturers put such claims right on the box. The problem: Just because they’ve done side-impact testing doesn’t mean it was particularly thorough testing, because there is no federal requirement, explains Janet Brelin-Fornari, director of the Crash Safety Center at Kettering University in Flint, Mich.
Indeed, “side-impact protection” (and similar terminology) can mean anything from some extra padding near the head area of a seat to the fact that the manufacturer did standardized crash tests using dummies representing different aged children. Crash testing might be limited to just far-side testing (when the car seat is say on the left side of the car but the car gets hit on the right side of the car) rather than both near-side and far-side testing, Brelin-Fornari says. They also may use different dummies, different car speeds and different methods — and can still put things like “side-impact tested” on the box. “Consumers need to know what this actually means,” says Brelin-Fornari.
And that’s a big problem. Brelin-Fornari says that there isn’t an easy way to determine what the car-seat manufacturer’s side-impact claims actually mean other than trying to look on their website or calling the manufacturer and asking (just note that they are under no obligation to tell you how they do this testing). “I recommend comparison shopping,” she says, suggesting that people try to get as much information on this as they can. She adds that the most expensive option is not always the safest, so it’s not a good idea to rely on price as an indicator of safety.
HTSA administrator David Friedman told reporters that many car seats would already meet the requirements laid out in the new proposal, and Lorrie Walker, the training manager and technology adviser for the children’s safety organization Safe Kids Worldwide says that most car seat manufacturers are already doing a good job of offering seats that protect against side impact crashes. Car-seat manufacturer Dorel says that is has three crash test sleds on-site (one for side impact) and that its side-impact testing was done at 19 mph speeds and simulates an accident in which the door intrudes into the car seat; Evenflo says it’s been doing side-impact testing since 2008 and does so “at speeds that replicate…those of the NHTSA’s newly proposed side impact test protocol.”
Brelin-Fornari says that while the lack of a uniform standard for side-impact testing can be stressful to parents, the most important thing to remember is that a child is safer in a car seat than out of one, as all car seats sold in the U.S. are, at least, already required to prove their front-impact safety. Walker stresses that it is important to buy the size seat that best fits your child. Next you must ensure that the car seat is installed safely, as three in four car seats in the U.S. are not used correctly; Finally, try to have the car seat situated in the rear seat in the center position, which is best for reducing the risk of injury in side impact, says Brelin-Fornari.
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