Controversy about Safety Seat Testing

On March 1, 2009, a breaking news story in the Chicago Tribune proclaimed that NHTSA had conducted but not released tests of infant-only seats buckled into vehicles that showed serious flaws in their performance. The reporter ferreted out the unnerving results from “thousands of pages of test reports” in 2008 NHTSA files. Britax was quoted as stating they had no knowledge of the tests; Graco, downplaying the test results, stated the safety seat in question was incorrectly attached. By going to Canada, Combi representative Edward Whitaker explained, his company was able to replicate the event and results shown in the in-vehicle tests and subsequently replaced a spring in their products to change the outcome. New Secretary of Transportation Raymond LaHood has ordered a complete re-evaluation of safety seat testing and regulations as a first step toward a resolution.

What are parents, Technicians, educators, and companies to do? Interestingly, more than a year ago, Evenflo ordered a recall for the Discovery as did Combi for the Centre and Shuttle (see SBS USA recall list at for details). Their actions were clearly based on the testing that the newspaper says it just unearthed. (In fact, the Discovery issue was covered by the New York Times in March 2008.)

The problem with this controversy is not that extra testing has been done but that the terms of the tests and the context of the results were not released in a timely manner for review and response by all concerned groups. The last time such dramatic results were released publicly (by Consumers Union), parents flooded retailers with rejected seats, although the tests turned out to be flawed.

SBS USA urges NHTSA to conduct their review quickly so parents can be fully informed. Meanwhile, Deborah Stewart, Publisher/Editor of Safe Ride News points out that almost all infant-only seats may be used without the base (check instructions to verify). But is there a real-world problem of infant-only seats separating from their bases that has led to injury and death? If so, is it due to poor design, incorrect use, or the severity of the incident? Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has compiled the largest collection of consistently analyzed cases of children in crashes over a ten-year period. They report that the chance of injury of an infant properly restrained in a correctly secured rear-facing seat is less than 1%. It is important to consider that infant seats installed without the base are more likely to be installed loosely or incorrectly.

If the NHTSA review indicates that improvements to FMVSS 213 are needed, that process should be initiated in a timely manner. However, unless vehicle manufacturers are ordered to test every safety seat in each model as part of their certification process, simply stating that seats should be tested in every car model could lead to inordinate delays for improved seats. Several years ago, NHTSA attempted to test fit of each seat in a series of vehicles. The 30,000 results were almost immediately outdated as both new seats and vehicles emerged. Although testing in vehicles has been recommended for many, many years and now occurs as part of vehicle crash tests, clearly the costs of producing a new safety seat will be greatly increased if sled tests are not accepted.

Today, physical test modes are often modeled on computers and conducted virtually long before actual tests with real restraints, sleds or vehicles. Modeling, in science and engineering, is an important part of the mix of making products. Moreover, crash tests at 30 mph with a rigid barrier, as required by FMVSS 213, are the equivalent of hitting another car at 60 mph and more severe than more than 95% of real-world crashes. The crash force of a similar test at 35 mph is about a third higher. In addition, the crash pulses in the rear seats of different vehicles vary considerably, meaning that seats would have to be tested in all vehicles, a task safety seat companies are not likely to do without large increases in safety seat costs.

Issues related to dangerous interaction between the vehicle and the child restraint, especially when there is separation of the back seat, also need to be addressed. It is often the field experience of products that determines change. When will regulations be written to reduce the number of vehicle front seats that break and fall on occupants of the back seat in rear impacts?

SBS USA will stay actively engaged in the discussion to seek resolution of this headline news report. Thanks to American Honda Motor Co., Barbara Knapp, and our general membership for unrestricted funding which allows us to pursue such suddenly emerging issues.

Response by Deborah D. Stewart, Editor, Safe Ride News


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