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Car-Safety.Org Carseat Buying Guide
The most frequently asked question by parents is, "Which is the
Safest Child Safety Seat?" The universally accepted principle is
that the safest child restraint system is one that fits your child, your vehicle and your
budget. The universally accepted principle also adds that the safest
car seat is one that you will use correctly every time without fail.
This guide attempts to illustrate some features that can make it easier
for a parent to fit their child and their vehicle.
There are also links to other great websites with specific
child restraint recommendations.
There are a number of features which can improve the safety of a
carseat. All current carseats meet existing government safety
requirements and pass standard crash tests. Some go beyond
that. The safest, perfect seat for every child and vehicle simply
does not exist. On the other hand, there are some important features
to consider on your next purchase. Car seats with few of these features
can still be very safe choices, but they may require more time and effort
to make sure they fit properly each time.
NHTSA and Consumer Reports® Child Car Seat Ratings
The NHTSA has released the Child Safety Seat Ease Of Use Rating Program for child restraints. The first ratings were released in 2003 then updated for 2008 and again in 2010. These ratings do not directly measure crash safety, only how the staff at the NHTSA feel the labels, manuals and features on these models make them easy to use. They do not even evaluate or test actual vehicle installation, only features that may help installation. In the original ratings, every model gets the top two overall ratings (A or B), making the ratings nearly worthless as a comparison tool. The newer ratings are more useful as models now range from 1-star to 5-stars, making the differences more obvious. Because NHTSA's criteria and weighting of importance may vary from yours, we recommend that parents judge car seats themselves, in person, with their own child and vehicle. This is the best way to determine ease of use, because each parent's preferences may not be the same as those determined by the government.
Consumer Reports issued a safety alert regarding its testing (including a new side impact test) in their February, 2007 issue. As with their previous tests, Consumer Reports does not release any details about their methods or relate their crash protection ratings to a real-world risk of injury, as is done with the government's "Star" ratings for vehicle crash tests. Some models were reported to have serious failures (breakage or separation) in their testing, so consumers should be advised to consider this information before making a purchase. Since there is no mandated side impact testing requirement in the USA, it is certainly possible for a carseat to exceed all government standards yet still perform poorly in a side impact. It is also possible that Consumer Reports' testing is flawed in some manner, as statistics have shown that rear-facing seats of all types are extremely effective and fatalities in rear-facing restraints are relatively rare.
FOLLOWUP 1/18/07: CONSUMER REPORTS WITHDRAWS INFANT CAR SEAT REPORT. "We withdrew the report immediately upon discovering a substantive issue that may have affected the original test results. The issue came to light based on new information received Tuesday night and Wednesday morning from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) concerning the speed at which our side-impact tests were conducted. " Though the panic created by the erroneous Consumer Reports testing was an embarrassment, Consumer Reports now claims it will consult with relevant agencies and experts to determine what went wrong with their report. Hopefully, this is good news for future reports that are accurate, unbiased and provide sufficient information for parents without the headline-grabbing hype.
Parents concerned about the integrity of ongoing Consumer Reports reviews may consider some alternatives-
Consumer Reports' last full child car seat review was in the May 2005 issue. Overall, this review provides very good information. As in the past, we advise that parents use their ratings very carefully and not limit themselves to the top models. Lower rated models and models not rated may well be safer and easier to use in your particular situation. They do often identify serious safety problems with some models, so they are still a resource worth reading. On the other hand, their concerns with the Britax Marathon when children are approaching the rear-facing weight limit are not a reason to discontinue rear-facing. Even above 25-30 pounds, rear-facing is still likely to be much safer than front-facing. Plus, we offer suggestions on how to keep bigger babies and small toddlers as safe as possible at our webpage on why rear-facing is safest.
The previous Consumer Reports ratings can be found in the May 2003 Full Review and August 2004 Update. In that review and update, they emphasize that parents should check the fit of any car seat in their own vehicle before they buy it. They also emphasize ease-of-use, considering many of the features we list above on this page. Each is excellent advice. They also note that some LATCH models are not compatible with some vehicles. We agree, and consumers should know that the LATCH system is not perfect, and is still evolving. On the negative side, they tell parents to use convertible seats rear-facing for infants, but forward-facing when the child is 1 year old and at least 20 pounds. This advice is NOT the safest recommendation; the American Academy of Pediatrics and most advocacy organizations recommend rear-facing as long as possible, up to the weight/height limits of your particular model. At least one model in this older review, the Baby Trend LATCH-LOC, received criticism for its rigid LATCH system. Like any carseat, it is true that some rigid LATCH models will not fit at all in some vehicles. Unfortunately, Consumer Reports failed to consider that in many vehicles, rigid LATCH does fit, is exceptionally easy to use, gives a very fast, extremely secure install and may offer improved protection in side impacts. Consumer Reports gave this model a poor fit rating because of rigid LATCH, but parents really should take their earlier advice and try it in their own vehicle first! The updated LATCH Loc did receive a better rating and a "Quick Pick" recommendation in the May 2005 review. As in previous reviews, they give no information as to how exactly they derive any of their ratings, so it is quite likely they are at least somewhat subjective and influenced by various editorial factors. Parents are advised to read the article, but not to place blind faith in their ratings.
Another older review was in the July 2001 Issue. Buyers should note their warnings regarding possible misuse of combination booster seats when used as a belt-positioning booster (for children over the harnessed weight limit). With certain types of shoulder belt guides, a child can create enough slack to render some boosters less safe. With proper installation and parental supervision, these seats can still be safe choices in many situations. In fact, taller children may not even need these guides to get a proper fit. Furthermore, some vehicles have switchable locking retractor seatbelts that can be engaged to prevent the child from pulling the seatbelt in the first place. Children can also release buckles and escape the harness in many other carseats. Riding in a car, like most potentially dangerous activities, requires proper supervision and discipline for safety. For example, many children mature enough to remain seated properly in a booster can also be taught not to pull on the shoulder belt, or to push the slack back into the retractor if they lean forward. In the more recent reviews, they didn't even bother to test many combination models because of this issue, despite the fact that they can often be used safely as described above.
In addition to the fact that Consumer Reports has sometimes given advice and ratings that don't reflect best (safest) practice and that they don't always give enough information for parents to understand their legitimate warnings, there are other reasons to be skeptical of their ratings:
Again, parents may still wish to consult the Consumer Reports review as one resource for carseat selection. Our guidance is simply not to limit yourself to models with their top ratings or crash protection scores, especially from their older reviews. Many other models they test (and some they don't) may be just as safe or even safer for your child and vehicle. Ultimately, if you buy a child restraint that you can install in a rear seat and use correctly every trip, it will be very safe for your child. Please don't rely solely on any one source of information, when there are a number of good resources on carseat selection like those linked above. An experienced child passenger safety technician can provide much more valuable advice in person than Consumer Reports, the NHTSA or any organization that evaluates child restraints can do in a couple pages of ratings that contain very little practical information.
It should be noted again that all currently sold carseats pass minimum government safety regulations and crash tests. No carseats are perfect, and none will fit every vehicle or child. Please visit our Carseat Selection Basics page, and consider which features in this guide will help you to use your carseat properly EACH and EVERY time! No car seat will have all these features, and few even have most of them. Some of these features may not even be important in your situation (e.g. if you only use LATCH, you won't need a seat with built-in locking clips). In the end, you must make your own judgment as to which seats fit your preferences the best, since it is possible that a seat recommended in a guide or on a forum will not work for you. Most importantly, ask if you can try the carseat with your child and with your vehicle before you buy. Also make sure there is a good return policy, especially if you order online. You may later find the carseat simply doesn't fit, or that your child doesn't like it. Recommendations and advice cannot replace having your new carseat inspected. Many hospitals, police, fire and public health departments have certified Child Passenger Safety technicians on staff. You may also visit our Seatcheck.net Resources to locate a technician, event or fitting station near you. Inspections are almost always free, and most technicians should take the time to help you learn how to do it yourself and can answer any questions you have.
Have More Questions?
The links above will answer many questions. We also have a more complete links page and a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page with references to more sources of information. Finally, we would be very happy to try to answer any questions or problems you may have regarding specific seats or vehicles. Please post them at our FORUMS.
* Consumer Reports® is a registered trademark of Consumers Union. All comments are the opinions of Car-Safety.Org and/or its owners, referencing material on a claim of "fair use." Car-Safety.Org is not affiliated with the NHTSA or Consumers Union.
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