Are We Getting Closer to a Perfect Car Seat?

Callie Enlow — New and Improved

Child car seats have got to be one of the worst products ever invented.

Don’t get me wrong: The world needs car seats, for children under 2 especially. Car accidents are the leading cause of death for children. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, car seats (more accurately called child safety seats) can reduce fatal injuries by up to 71 percent for infants and 54 percent for toddlers ages 1 to 4. The rear-facing seats recommended for children ages 2 and younger distribute the force of a collision across the child’s entire backside. While the five-point harness system in front-facing child car seats typically recommended for ages 2 to 5 also distributes force across a larger area than a standard car seatbelt would, offering better protection from injury. One study found that children under 8 in car seats properly installed into post-1998 vehicles were 67 percent less likely to sustain moderate or serious injuries than kids restrained in seat belts alone.

But that obvious necessity has led to a market flooded with sub-optimal products. These child car seats often don’t fit into vehicle backseats, which seems like a pretty basic requirement. They get recalled frequently for safety hazards. They’re heavy and unwieldy to lug around if you’re traveling or trying to transfer a sleeping baby from car to crib. If my son’s ear-splitting protests are any indication, they can also be uncomfortable. But most importantly, they’re notoriously difficult to install.

Estimates on the number of American parents doing it wrong when it comes to car seat installation range from 75 to 95 percent. In one study, 91 percent of those errors were “serious.”

If you’re the parent of a young child, you’re probably aware of these shocking statistics thanks to massive public service campaigns. In these studies and campaigns the message is the same: It’s parents who are doing the installing wrong. As if cars and the child safety seats themselves had nothing to do with it. Were parents to design their own PSA, it might have a slogan like “99 percent of car seats suck to install.” As John Cary wrote in an essay for Re:form: “it’s difficult to think of another example of a product in which the manufacturer’s design failures are blamed almost universally on the users.”

What would an ideal, easy-to-install child safety seat even look like? I posed this question to Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations of Consumer Reports Auto Test Center. “Our dream [is] a seat that clicks into some frame that’s integrated in the car,” she said by phone from the Center. “The whole idea of a child safety seat is to make the seat better integrated into the car.”

A few car companies offer integrated older-kid booster seats on specific models, such as Dodge, Chrysler, and Volvo, which has been providing the seats as an accessory since 1990. In 2015, Volvo introduced a concept that replaced the front passenger seat with a rear-facing infant seat, to mixed reception.

But on the whole, attempts to address installation woes by automotive brands have not taken off. According to Stockburger, this is likely because the cost to car companies to develop such seats would not match consumer demand. Tamara Garcia, a child passenger safety technician and owner of Car Seat Savvy LA also pointed out that “car seat models change every year … If the seat belt or the seat design changes just a tiny bit, that could also change the way a seat functions.” As it is, Stockburger notes that currently “there’s no collaboration between car companies and child safety seat manufacturers.”

However, just in the past year a few promising child safety seats have hit the American market. In terms of installation, last year’s Consumer Electronics Show gained some mom blog coverage when 4moms debuted its self-installing infant car seat. On the market since June, 2016, 4moms claims that with just a little tech-savvy on the part of the parent, an app will determine the user’s car make and model to find its LATCH hooks (the international system of anchors and tethers for child safety seats), recommend seat placement, and measure the angle to level the car seat. Once attached to the LATCH system, the seat tensions and levels itself, taking care of two of the biggest installation worries. Parents can get installation help from the company in real-time as well. While Stockburger says Consumer Reports has not tested the 4moms seat, “there’s a ton of promise there,” she says.

There’s just a few issues with 4moms’ product, the first being they issued a voluntary recall of the seats earlier this year for a defect in the hooks that attach the seat to its base. (The defect was present in a small percentage of seats.) Second, at least one reviewer noted some frustrating hiccups with the app. And as Tamara Garcia pointed out, while it was “amazing to see it all work” as the seat tensions and levels itself, people without a lot of time or inclination to fiddle with their smartphone “would just be blindsided.” Also, it costs about $500, which is even more ghastly considering the seat is rear-facing only. It doesn’t convert to front-facing, which would prolong its utility. Still, “4moms is at the forefront of technology,” says Stockburger.

The other great advancement in car seat tech over the past year (at least here in the states) are load legs. A load leg, or foot prop, is a metal support that extends from the base of a rear-facing infant seat to the vehicle floor. The technology has been available in Europe for a few years already. Consumer Reports gave its highest safety marks to all four of the seats that currently feature a load leg in the U.S., saying they “provide an additional margin of safety in a crash.” In Consumer Reports’ tests, the load leg reduced head injury risk by 46 percent. The consumer group also gave favorable marks to all the seats for ease of use, noting that “though the load leg is an additional step, it’s a feature that is easy to use in most vehicle seating positions.” Currently, the least expensive model with the feature is about $250. Just make sure your car’s floor can support the load, not all vehicles’ can.

If a $500 car seat is not on your financial horizon, don’t despair. “You can have a $70 car seat being used correctly and a $500 car seat installed incorrectly, and the baby will be safer in the $70 seat,” said Garcia. Because all seats available on the market have met the NHTSA guidelines, many expensive seats are not inherently more safe than their cheaper counterparts. “Other than the load leg, we do not see a good correlation between price and safety,” said Stockburger.

Another common misconception about car seats is that bigger equals safer. Stockburger notes there are two ways to mitigate impact from a crash, by having a rigid frame, such as steel, which often makes seats large and heavy, or by having some flex. She points to Cosco Scenera seats as an example of the latter. The convertible seat is narrow and lightweight and retails for about $40 to $50. “It’s done very well in our crash tests over a number of years,” Stockburger says.

Otherwise, while waiting for the above technologies to gain wider representation in more—and hopefully less expensive—car seats, Garcia and Stockburger recommend looking specifically for features like built-in lock-off, belt-tensioning plates, easy-to-use level adjusters, harnesses that don’t need to be manually re-threaded, and rigid LATCH.

Also, “we still highly encourage making use of your local child passenger safety technician,” said Stockburger. In most major cities, there are services like Car Seat Savvy that will install seats, and free checks offered at child car seat inspection stations nationwide. At some retailers like Babies R Us you can also do a fitting of potential car seats in your vehicle before buying them, which can go a long way in preventing installation headaches before they start.

But one of the most important things you can do is free and requires only a little bit of effort: read the instruction manual. Garcia says this is the number one mistake her clients make, they skip over the words and rely solely on the pictures and diagrams in the instruction booklet or on the seat or base. Unfortunately, no amount of innovation can solve that.