Every child who is 1 year old and weighs 20 lbs. is allowed to ride in a front facing car seat (if only because they get too huge to fit rear-facing anymore) and at age 4 and 40 lbs they can graduate to a car booster seat until they turn 8 or until they are 4 ft. 9 inches tall. Endless studies show that carseats and booster seats are safer, safer, safer. But safer than what? And under what circumstances are they safer? Are parents even qualified to install the carseats they buy? Certified child passenger safety seat installers and Highway Patrol officers are required to complete a 4-day course on carseat installation. Do carseats and booster seats for children age 2 to 8 actually make your child safer or are you being bullied by carseat companies into spending $300,000,000 per year on complicated safety devices that have no more benefit than a properly used seatbelt? Is improved safety for small children through the use of carseats and booster seats a buckled down fact? Or is the sense that these seats provide more safety for your kids just a well marketed myth?
An Op. Ed. piece in the Wisconsin Badger Herald said, “Although it may seem inconvenient for parents to place their child in a car seat instead of just strapping them into a seat belt, it is better than placing them in a coffin.” Are those the options? Carseat or coffin? What if the U.S. Department of Transportation fatality data says “not so much” with the carseat or coffin analogy? What if a good old fashioned free seatbelt that comes ready-made with your car would not only save you money, but save your child? Aw, go on! That’s crazy talk!
How can you be sure that child safety seats are safer for children 2 and older than factory-installed lap and shoulder belts? Well, it’s obvious they are safer. They are big, fancy, expensive, and professionally designed to be safe. Plus, hundreds of industry sponsored studies prove that they are safer. But what does the data from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Fatal Analysis Reporting System (FARS) say about improved safety through safety seats? FARS reports data on all fatal traffic crashes occurring on public roads throughout the United States, D.C. and Puerto Rico. Their purpose is to provide an objective basis to evaluate the effectiveness of motor vehicle safety standards and highway safety programs. FARS data reveals that there has been no change in the safety rate of children in safety seats versus children in lap and shoulder belts in the period ranging from 1975 to 2003.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administratin (NHTSA) manual says that carseats are only “54 percent effective in reducing deaths for children ages 1 to 4 in passenger cars.” Well, that sounds like an impressive number! So children who ride in carseats are 54% safer if than if they used seatbelts? No. That’s 54% safer than riding completely unrestrained. According to the NHTSA, children who ride restrained in lap and shoulder strap seatbelts are equally protected from fatal injury as those restrained in a carseat.
Carseat companies will concede that these statistics are true regarding fatal injuries, but will insist that they are backed up by the NHTSA when they say, “yeah, but…” carseats are more effective at reducing serious injury during a crash than a lap and shoulder belt system.
Steven Levitt, author of “The Seatbelt Solution” written on July 10, 2008 for his New York Times blog “Freakonomics” faced enormous challenges trying to organize an independent crash test of 3 and 6-year-olds in both safety seats and lap and shoulder belt restraints. Testing companies refused to help him because they were afraid of jeopardizing their contracts with carseat companies. One agreed to perform the test anonymously. The results of that independent crash test demonstrated that 3 year olds fared better in a seatbelt than in a carseat. 6 year olds were the same in either kind of restraint.
But crash test dummies are not real children. They held up well for the purposes of Levitt’s test, but neither safety seat manufacturer tests nor Levitt’s test are able to simulate the most common injuries to children in car crashes. The most compelling reason for choosing to use a booster seat or car seat for children between the ages of 2 and 4 is that children are more comfortable if their knees bend at the edge of the seat. So, to get nice and comfy they often slide their bodies down the seat so their legs feel more comfortable. Their seatbelts are then positioned over their abdomens instead of over the tops of their thighs and in the event of a crash, their supple little bodies just slide right out through the bottom of the seatbelt. This effect is called submarining. Crash test dummies are currently not supple or articulated enough to provide test data on submarining, but because of accident reports we know it happens.
Booster seats help support children in a frame that is more ergonomic for their smaller body size. The seats provide for the natural bend in their legs. Comfy, secure, sold! Ah, but here’s the rub and it isn’t from the seatbelt. AAA reports that 4 out of 5 safety seats are installed incorrectly. Part of the problem is that safety seats are not a “one size fits all” solution. Not all seats fit well in all cars and not all children fit well in all seats.
Susan Ferguson, senior vice president of research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says, “Your best bet is to take the child, the booster and the vehicle and test all three” at the same time. So there you are, a mom and her child going into Toys R Us, purchasing one car seat, taking it to the car, installing it, strapping the child into it, driving around the parking lot, taking the child out of it, uninstalling the seat, standing in line at the returns counter and returning the seat, purchasing a new seat… repeat… repeat… until sunset and the store locks you out.
Also, once you find the seat that fits both your car and your child. Don’t think you have won the war. Kids bodies grow and change very quickly. Lorrie Walker, chief training manager for National Safe Kids, said, “Parents really need to assess the child every few months in the safety seat and in the different vehicles he or she travels in”. So, in addition to possibly buying a new seat every few months, you want to make sure that the seat is installed correctly. Yes, you can take it down to the local Highway Patrol and ask for their help, but what about when this happens:
• Your child spills a drink all over himself and the seat. You take it out and hose it down. Reinstall seat.
• You lend the seat to the babysitter so she can take the kid to the beach. Reinstall seat in babysitter’s car. Reinstall seat in your car.
• Your husband comes home with a new gift wrapped minivan to replace the small economy junker you’ve been driving. The carseat comes out of the small car and goes right into the big car.
Do you take the carseat to the Highway Patrol every time you have to reinstall a seat?
Come on, do you really?
You can become a Certified Car Seat Installation Technician instead. All you have to do is Register with Safe Kids at safekids.org, register for a $60 course in your area, spend 4 to 5 days in a classroom completing the course, pass a hands-on test and a written test to prove you know your stuff, participate in a car seat check-up event where parents bring their cars and car seats to you to inspect for proper installation, and after that keep your certification current by renewing your certification every two years. No problem. You will be assured that you are reinstalling that safety seat securely every single time!
So here is what we have come to accept. The law requires us to spend hundreds of dollars per child on an evolving collection of safety seats to fit our growing children and our cars. If your children are widely spaced, don’t expect to safely reuse carseats for the younger children. Safety seats typically have an expiration date of around 6 years. To be sure that you are not actually endangering your child by placing them in an improperly installed safety seat, you will want to be spending a lot of time at the Highway Patrol station or make the investment to become a Certified Carseat Installation Technician yourself. And for what? To use an aftermarket safety device that wasn’t even designed to fit in your car. You could just use “free with purchase” factory-installed lap and shoulder belt and receive equal protection from fatality and significant protection from serious injury.
But that is not ideal. You want 100% protection for your child. It is always better to be safe than sorry, right? You will happily make all of these aftermarket investments in time and money to avoid the shortcomings of the adult seatbelt arrangement your car manufacturer provided for you. It is part of the price of having kids and you do what you have to do to keep them safe. Well, that’s not good enough for some. Some people think it should be a lot easier than this to keep kids safe in the car. It shouldn’t require a special degree to properly select and install a safety device that the law requires you to use. It is setting parents up for failure and frustration.
The good news is there is a third alternative that some people are starting to take seriously and it doesn’t mean trading your car in for a bus pass. Some car manufacturers have already seen Shangri-La and are bringing it to you. Since 2005, Volkswagen has offered cars with integrated carseats that fit children ages 2 to 12. The 2008 Volvo V70 Wagon has a built-in booster seat with height adjustment to fit kids between 37 and 55 inches high and weighing between 33 to 79 lbs. And several other car manufacturers offer the option of an integrated carseat. Integrated carseats are the ultimate solution because they don’t require any special knowledge to install, and there is no question that they have been designed and tested to fit and perform well in the car they’re in.
Some other solutions that we have yet to see, but could be coming soon is a built in safety seat with a 5-point harness that would be appropriate for the wiggliest of kids. Or lap and shoulder belts with height adjustments to properly fit a child. Or retractable footrests that would enable a small child to extend his legs straight while wearing an adult seatbelt freeing him of the urge to slump out of the seatbelt to make his legs more comfortable.
Don’t these really simple common sense solutions to this safety seat issue make you feel like slapping yourself on the head and saying “I shoulda had a V8”? The carseat companies have done their job convincing us that carseats are the one and only safety answer and they have created a $300,000,000 a year industry by doing so. The truth is they are actually an expensive inconvenience that are nearly impossible for most people, 4 out of 5 to be exact, to use safely! Aftermarket safety seats are not the holy grail of car safety for our kids. That is a myth. The answer lies in redirecting that $300,000,000 million dollars a year into production of cars that come with safety equipment for kids. Safety doesn’t have to be complicated. Next time you’re shopping for a car ask the dealer for a car with integrated child safety features for todders and young children. If they don’t have one, go to another dealership. If enough consumers demand a little common sense from car manufacturers, the market will supply it sure enough, but not as long as we passively buy into the myth that aftermarket safety seats are good enough for our kids.
Though Provoking Semi-related Postscript:
On April 21, 2009 Autoblog published this article “REPORT: Federal laws keeping Volvo from offering safer child seats“. It seems that auto manufacturer Volvo has partnered with carseat manufacturer Britax-Romer to create a custom-made carseat model that fits and works perfectly only in Volvo vehicles. The intention was to create a carseat that would be supremely safe when used in Volvo vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will not allow that carseat to be sold in the U.S. because the “NHTSA has mandated that child seats cannot be vehicle-specific”…”every child seat must fit in every car”.
This is a two-sided coin. On the one hand it can be argued that both Volvo and Britax-Romer are trying to create the safest seat possible for children. It can also be argued that Volvo has found a way to present a safer option to the public without going to the expense of building cars with integrated safety seats (which they are doing in some models already), and Britax-Romer has found a way to expand their profit margin by creating vehicle specific models. The true motivation probably lies somewhere within a combination of both motives. Either way, what could be the NHTSA’s motive for denying the new product to be sold in the U.S.? Are they being irrationally bureaucratic? Are they trying to protect the consumer by not letting the market become flooded with vehicle-specific seats? Is inspection and regulation of so many seats too much of a logistical nightmare for all truly concerned with child safety? And wouldn’t the whole bloody mess just evaporate if all cars had the option to come pre-built with integrated safety seats?