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Status Report, Vol. 44, No. 6 | June 11, 2009 Subscribe

NHTSA hands off child seat issue to automakers

Choosing a child restraint that properly fits their child, vehicle, and budget can be tricky for parents. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is proposing to remove some of the guesswork by asking automakers to voluntarily recommend specific seats for their vehicles. The move was spurred by an agency review after a few rear-facing infant seats detached from their bases during routine research crash tests, leading two restraint manufacturers to voluntarily recall some models.

Nissan and Infiniti already recommend seats for their vehicles for the U.S. market, but most other manufacturers don't. Participating automakers will give consumers choices in three different price ranges, starting with 2011 models.

"It's up to manufacturers to decide how they're going to determine what constitutes a good fit," explains NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson. Crash tests won't be required, though Tyson says some automakers test seats as part of research and development.

"This program should help address parents' struggles with finding child seats that are compatible with their vehicles and fit their children," observes Institute president Adrian Lund. "But it's not clear that NHTSA is doing all it can to reassure parents that infant seats won't come apart in a crash like two of them did in the crash tests the government uses to evaluate how well vehicles protect adults in crashes."

The agency says it is drafting guidelines for automakers. These "should require automakers to demonstrate that the recommended seats won't have similar failures," Lund says. "We think automakers are obligated to crash test any seat they'd suggest consumers buy to make sure it's compatible with the vehicle and holds up in a crash."

Child seats must meet minimum federal performance standards for front crash protection, based on a sled test that simulates a crash and not an actual crash test with a seat installed in a vehicle. Side crash protection isn't evaluated at all. For consumers, NHTSA rates individual seats by how easy they are to install, not how well they fit specific vehicles or protect children in crashes.

The Chicago Tribune in March reported that some rear-facing infant seats either detached from their bases or exceeded injury limits in front and side crash tests NHTSA conducted in 2007 as part of the New Car Assessment Program. The Tribune report prompted the agency to undertake an internal task force review of seat safety, followed by the April announcement of the new consumer information program.

At 35 mph, the government's front test replicates a head-on crash that is more severe than the 30 mph sled tests child seat manufacturers must use for compliance purposes. Because different infant seats were tested in different cars, the seats' performance can't be compared against each other. But the tests did show a clear problem with some seats.

One seat, the Combi Centre, repeatedly separated from its base during tests in a number of vehicles. Combi USA in February 2008 voluntarily recalled the Centre and a similar seat, the Shuttle, based on data from the government tests. Combi sent parents a retrofit kit with new springs to fix the problem.

In the government's side crash tests, the Evenflo Discovery detached from its base, prompting Evenflo to voluntarily recall 1 million infant seats in February 2008. Retrofitting these seats with a dual-hook fastener will keep them locked in their bases in high-impact crashes, Evenflo said.

Neither company had received reports of injuries with their seats, and both said no problems turned up in their own tests.

Combi told the Tribune its engineers couldn't replicate the government's results using the sled test that manufacturers use to certify seat safety. Working with regulators from Transport Canada, the company developed a new sled test to simulate the forces of the U.S. crash tests.

NHTSA deems current safety standards for front crashes adequate but plans to further examine how child seats interact with vehicle front seats and their occupants. A first-ever side impact standard is expected once an appropriate-size dummy has been approved to use in tests.

NHTSA should take another look at front protection, Lund says. Infant seats shouldn't separate from bases in a crash. The fact that "Combi had to re-engineer a sled test to replicate NHTSA's crash test indicates the current sled test is inadequate."

Lund adds that "the agency should look at what Combi has done to see if its test is a better gauge of seat safety. This is especially important if the agency isn't going to require automakers to do crash tests."

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