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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.

Features

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.

  • 5-point harness.  Experts agree and studies confirm that this type of harness is safest.    The 5-point harness usually gives the best fit and reduces the chance of ejection. Some designs may easier to use than others.

  • Wide, twist-free straps.  Some harnesses have straps that twist easily.  A twisted strap reduces the area that restrains a child in a crash, and this can result in burns or more severe injuries.

  • Two-piece chest clips.  These can also reduce strap twisting and are usually easier to use.  They are often more difficult for a child to detach.

  • Front harness adjustments.  Some seats have a mechanism on the front of the carseat to adjust the tightness of the harness.  Experts recommend that the harness be snug, such that you can't pinch any of the strap away from the shoulder.  A tight harness can increase ride-down time, reduce the forward movement of the head in a crash and reduce the overall risk of injury.  The easier the tightness is to adjust, the more likely it is that you will adjust it properly every time, no matter what clothing the child is wearing (though winter coats and other bulky clothing under the harness straps are not recommended).  Some models even allow for the harness height to be adjusted from the front.

  • Built-in locking clips.  Some older vehicles will require the use of a metal locking clip to make sure the seatbelt holds the carseat properly and doesn't loosen over time.  These clips are easily lost and often used incorrectly.  A few carseat models have built-in locking clips that are much easier to use and often result in a tighter fit.

  • Seat belt routing path.  In addition to built-in locking clips, some carseats have seatbelt routing paths which may make for better installations in some vehicles.  Some seats also make it easier to actually route the belt from one side to the other with openings in the fabric cover for your hands.  Vehicles with sloped rear seats or seatbelt buckles that come out from in front of the crease between the cushion and the back of the seat can make for difficult installations.  Some carseats simply won't work with such seats.  Finally, some seatbelt guides on certain belt-positioning boosters may be prone to misuse, causing excess slack in the seatbelt.  In many cases, the only way to be sure is to try to install the seat in your own vehicle.

  • Infant carriers with bases.  Most infant carriers come with bases that can be installed separately.  The base is left in the vehicle, and the carrier is easily installed or removed from the base without taking the baby out of the harness.  An extra base can usually be purchased separately for another vehicle.  Most carriers can be installed by themselves in a vehicle even without the base, but a few models may require the base for installation, so check to make sure.

  • Size.  Some seats may be too large to fit in vehicles with small rear seating areas, especially when rear-facing.  For most carseats, this is not an issue, and may even be an advantage in a crash.  Finally, it is sometimes necessary to choose a narrower model so that more carseats or passengers can fit side-by-side in the rear seat.

  • Tether strap with easy adjustment.  Top tethers may vary in their mechanisms for adjusting the length of the strap and ease for connecting/disconnecting the strap from the anchor.   Some have easy-to-use push-button mechanisms, others use simple hooks.

  • Rear-facing tethers and anti-rebound bars.  These features are found on a few infant and convertible seats.  Depending on the model, these features may improve crash performance, reduce the rebound of the rear-facing seat into the vehicle seat and increase the stability of the installation

  • Foot Props.  No current model in the USA uses a foot-prop to reduce any possible excessive downward rotation in a crash.  This feature is common in other countries, like Australia.  It may increase the safety of rear-facing restraints when used with heavier children.

  • LATCH.  LATCH is a newer system that allows a carseat to be installed without seatbelts.  It can make it easier to get a proper fit in many vehicles.  All carseats and most vehicles since 2002-2003 have this system.  The carseat attachments vary significantly, some are easy to connect and release, others can be quite difficult.

  • Head impact protection.  Most carseats have an added layer of EPS foam or special plastic, similar to that used in bicycle helmets and protective gear.  This is usually recessed into the plastic shell of the seat around the head, and can improve crash safety in side impacts, rear impacts and rebounds in frontal crashes.  Some boosters may be made primarily of EPS grade foam.  A few newer models tout special side-impact protection features as well.

  • Increased weight limits.  Rear-facing is safest for children, since frontal crashes are more frequent and severe than other crashes.  When rear-facing, the child is cradled by the whole seat.  Front-facing, all the forces are transferred to the child by the harness straps, and the head is still free to be thrown forward.  Most newer convertible seats have 35 or 40 pound rear-facing weight limits, and many infant carriers also go to 30 or 35 pounds.  Much emphasis is also being placed on older children in boosters.  Newer boosters have 80 or 100 pound limits, and there are harnessed front-facing carseats that go to 65 and even 90 pounds.  Some restraints offer protection when only a lap belt is available.

  • Adequate room for tall children.  Some carseats have higher slots than others.  When front-facing, a child's shoulders should be at or below the harness slots.  Some carseats have higher backs than others.  When front facing, the tips of a child's ears should not be above the top of the carseat, to allow for whiplash protection.  Some seats also have adjustable crotch strap positions for larger children.  A proper fit is safer.  Seats that accommodate taller children may allow you to use the carseat longer.  A few older convertible carseats can ONLY use the top set of harness slots when front facing, as the other slots may not be reinforced on these models.

  • Reinforced carrying handles.  While installed in a car, some infant carriers must have the handle in the "down" position. Left in the upright position, the handle can break during the rebound in a crash and injure the baby or other passengers.  Other models may allow the handle to remain up at all times, and some may require the handle to remain up when installed in the vehicle; please check the manual.

  • "Wings" for sleeping and protection.  Some models have wide, padded wings on each side of the head.  These are not only helpful to keep a child's head upright while sleeping, but they can also help to keep the child's head from hitting hard objects during a rebound in a side or rear impact.

  • Recline.  Some seats have built-in recline adjustments.  This may help get the necessary 45-degree recline for newborns without the use of rolled-up towels or swim noodles in rear-facing operation. Older babies, toddlers, and preschoolers usually require less of a recline in a rear-facing carseat.  Some models have handy recline indicators to help adjust them properly.  While forward-facing, recline is not recommended unless allowed in the owner's manual.

Links to other buying guides:

These other sites also have good advice for people in the market for a new carseat.  One site even has a great database which may help you pick one that may fit well in your vehicle:

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-

  • If you own an infant seat that failed their tests, consider replacing it with a convertible model used rear-facing. These do not use detachable bases and you will need a convertible seat anyway, once your child is too big for an infant seat.
  • If you are purchasing a new seat, consider one that did not fail their testing (or wasn't tested at all), at least until their tests can be confirmed by a reliable source.
  • Do NOT, under any circumstances, allow your infant to ride unrestrained or to use an inappropriate restraint for their age.
  • If a seat performed poorly with LATCH but was acceptable with a seat belt, then use the seatbelt for installation. If you own an infant seat that was reported to detach from its base, install the carrier itself with a seatbelt (not using the base) if allowed in the owner's manual (some infant seats must use the base for installation).
  • Even seats that did not perform well in their testing are likely to protect children very well in the vast majority of real world crashes. In particular, statistics have shown that rear-facing seats are very effective and fatalities in them are relatively rare. You should continue to use your current seat according to the instruction manual until you decide on an alternative. Please see below for other reasons to be at least somewhat skeptical of findings by Consumer Reports.
  • Have your child seat Inspected by a Certified Technician.

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:

  • Crash tests like those done by CR are only useful if the carseat fits your child and vehicle as well as the carseats at CR fit their dummy and test sleds. 
  • Their ratings circles give no information on how their results were interpreted and they may exaggerate small differences when they normalize their data.  So, it is quite possible that a seat rated "Fair" (half black circle) for crash protection is nearly as safe on a crash test sled as one rated "Very Good" (half red circle).  We just aren't given enough information.
  • Consumer Reports does not reveal any of their data or relate their crash protection ratings to a real-world risk of injury.  With no information on their criteria for fit to vehicle or ease of use, we have no idea if their tests will be valid outside the laboratory.   In a real crash, with your child, your vehicle and your installation, that model rated "Fair" could well be safer than the "Very Good" one!
  • Their findings are not peer-reviewed. Respectable studies are submitted to industry journals or independent experts to be reviewed before they are published. Consumer Reports does not participate in this process that is very important to reveal potential flaws and errors in methods and data.
  • They simply didn't test many of the models that are currently available and only one version of each model they do test.  Some versions they did test are already discontinued and the results may not even apply to newer versions.
  • Perhaps most importantly, they don't test models in side (some infant seats have recently been tested in their new side impact test), rear or rollover crashes.  These types of crashes can be very deadly, and some models may excel in these critical areas that are mostly neglected by Consumer Reports.
  • Some models have earned notably different ratings and comments from one review to the next, even though the model is essentially unchanged.  The margins of error for their testing and subjective ratings are questionable and the ratings are sometimes inconsistent.
  • Each parent may have preferences for "Ease of Use" that may well vary from the opinion and biases of Consumer Reports (or the NHTSA in its ratings).  The best way to choose is to evaluate models in person with your own child and vehicle because any particular top-rated model might not seem very easy to you.

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.

Also see: Consumer Reports on Car Seats: Controversial or Not?

Recommended Carseats

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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