Responding to a mandate from Congress in 2000, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is in the fourth year of rating child restraints based on comparative ease of use. The idea is to help parents find and use the most appropriate restraints. Seventy-four of the 92 restraints rated this year earned As, 13 got Bs, and the other 5 earned mixed scores of As and Bs.
The Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability, and Documentation Act of 2000 also directed NHTSA to explore ratings based on comparative restraint performance in dynamic tests. However, the agency has decided not to pursue such ratings.
"This decision makes sense," says Susan Ferguson, Institute senior vice president for research, pointing to numerous studies indicating that when child restraints are used correctly they do a good job. "In real-world crashes, child restraints seem to be doing a good job. The problem is that children don't always ride in the restraints. Hopefully, NHTSA's ease-of-use ratings are helping parents choose restraints they'll actually put their children in."
Looking into the idea of dynamic testing, NHTSA conducted two pilot programs, one of which involved 30 mph sled tests to compare how well child restraints protect kids. The other program expanded frontal New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) crash tests by putting child restraints in the back seats to compare how well the vehicles being tested would protect children who are properly restrained.
The sled tests didn't reveal any significant differences, NHTSA says. Every restraint would earn a high performance rating. Another problem with ratings based on dynamic performance is the relatively short shelf life of child restraints. New models replace old ones every six to eight months. With such quick rotation, it's unlikely that consumers would get the safety performance ratings in time to help decide which restraint to purchase.
As NHTSA scraps sled testing for consumer information, officials say they'll continue to look at data from frontal NCAP tests of vehicles with properly restrained dummies representing 1-year-old, 6-year-old, and 10-year-old children positioned in back seats. NHTSA officials say they'll decide later whether these data could provide consumers with any useful comparisons about how well vehicles protect children in restraints.
"The agency's message is that all of these restraints work. The issue is how easy or difficult it is for parents and other adults to install and use the seats correctly," Ferguson says (see "LATCH makes buckling kids easier, but it still isn't a breeze," June 11, 2003). The latest NHTSA surveys indicate a recent decline in the proportion of children riding in infant or child seats. The largest drop occurred among children 4 to 7 years old. Seventy-three percent of children this age were riding restrained in 2004, down from 83 percent in 2002.