NBC News
updated 12/11/2003 9:08:59 PM ET 2003-12-12T02:08:59

If you have young children, you know the drill. Before the key goes in the ignition, the child goes in the car seat, buckled, secure, and safe. Or so you assume. But what if the car seat you’re using isn’t safe? That’s what some parents, and experts are saying about a seat that could be in millions of cars. Dateline has been investigating this story for months, plowing through hundreds of documents and watching dozens of tests.

On a rainy North Carolina afternoon four years ago, Dylan White’s life changed forever. His father says Dylan was riding in his grandmother’s car, secured properly in his shield booster seat, when the car was hit by a van.

Blake White: “The van hit on the left side of the vehicle.

Blake White is Dylan’s father.

Thompson: “Where was Dylan when that accident happened?”

Blake: “He was in the passenger side rear.”

Thompson: “As far really as you could get from the impact of that accident.”

Blake: Yes, in the safest spot in the vehicle.”

But it wasn’t safe enough. The 38-pound Dylan was ejected, thrown right out of the car seat and onto the highway.

Blake: “He went about thirty feet after he went through the rear windshield of the vehicle.”

Dylan was in a coma for 11 days. The accident left him a quadriplegic. He needs a machine to breathe.

Thompson: “How is it you believe that he was ejected out of that booster seat when he was strapped into it?”

Blake: “I’m still amazed by it. It should have held him, but it didn’t.”

And police say it wasn’t a high speed accident. Dylan had been riding in a Cosco “Grand Explorer’ shield booster seat. As you will see, his dad is only one of many parents who blame Cosco’s shield booster seats for failing to protect their child from catastrophic injury or death. Cosco is the only company still making a shield booster, for sale in the U.S. and Canada. It’s older “Explorer” and updated “Grand Explorer” models have been hugely popular. The company says it now sells about one million Grand Explorers a year. They’re inexpensive, easy to use, and federally approved. The shield booster is designed for kids who have outgrown their rear-facing infant seats, but are still too small to use only a standard seatbelt. For kids over 40 pounds, the shield is removed and the car’s seatbelt is the upper body restraint. There is no dispute among safety experts that when it’s used with the seatbelt properly, the Cosco booster is safe.”

But Dylan was under 40 pounds. For kids this size, the seatbelt goes across the top of the shield, so the shield is the only upper body restraint. There are no straps or belts directly holding the child in the seat. And that’s exactly what most independent experts say is the problem with the shield booster.

Thompson: “How many accidents involving children do you think you have investigated?”

Dr. Joe Burton: “I would say probably 1,000 — conservatively.”

Dr. Joe Burton is a world-renowned restraint system expert. He is a medical examiner, consulted for the government, and testified in lawsuits, 11 against Cosco. He acknowledges some accidents are so severe, no one could survive.

Burton: “Any safety device, no matter what it is, can’t protect a child, or us, in every type of crash, every time.”

But in most accidents, he says, the right safety seat used properly can save a child from serious injury, or death. He says a shield booster is not the right seat. In fact, he thinks shield boosters shouldn’t even be sold.

Thompson: “You warn parents against against using the Cosco shield booster seat.”

Burton: “Any shield booster, including the Cosco, which is the only on being manufactured presently.”

Thompson: “Tell us the kinds of devastation that you’ve seen when they were using this booster seat.”

Burton: “A child who’s a quadriplegic, who can’t use its arms or its legs. Severe brain damage a child that for the rest of his life will have to be taken care of — and the ultimate, death.”

Federal standards require child safety seats restrain and protect children in a 30 mile an hour frontal crash. Cosco’s shield booster meets that requirement. But Dr. Burton and others are critical the government only does this frontal test, saying it doesn’t show what happens to a child in other types of accidents.

Dr. Burton showed us crash test films conducted for families suing Cosco. He says these are based on accidents where children should have walked away. Instead, they never walked again. In one film, the child-sized dummy nearly flies out of the seat. Burton says its because the shield booster doesn’t restrain the upper body.

Burton: “The motion of the head and neck is not slowed down. Now, see how the pelvis is up over the top of the shield. The child wants to wrap around and come out of this seat. And if there’s any looseness in it, they can sometimes come all the way out of this seat.”

That’s what happened to Dylan White and to two-and-a-half year old Christopher Armstrong.

He was riding with his mother and two siblings when their minivan veered off a Texas highway and rolled over. Christopher died after being ejected from his Cosco shield booster.

Four-year-old Brittany Black suffered a similar fate. She and her brothers were in the backseat when the family SUV was in an accident, and rolled over. Brittany flew out of her Cosco shield booster, was ejected and killed.

But even if a child stays in the shield booster, Dr. Burton says, there can still be catastrophic injuries, because there is nothing to strap the child to the seat. In one crash test, the impact violently whipped the dummy forward, then back, and measured devastating injuries to the head, neck and spinal cord.

Burton: “It would be like I took your head, went up to a table and smashed your head and neck over the edge of the table.”

That crash test was based on a real accident, an accident involving a little girl named Cinnamon Elking. Cinnamon was riding in her Cosco shield booster in the back of her mother’s car when it collided with an overturned grain truck on this rural Ohio highway. State trooper John Sears investigated the accident, and says he determined the speed of the impact was about 30 mph. He thought the girl was uninjured.

Sears: “Everyone else involved in the crash was either not injured or treated and released for minor injuries. The particular position that she was in, in the vehicle, was the farthest away from the impact.”

Trooper Sears says he was surprised that Cinnamon was injured so severely she had to be airlifted to a hospital in Cincinnati. But the real shock came when Chuck and Lillian Elking, Cinnamon’s grandparents, got to the hospital.

Lillian Elking: “The doctors came in and told us that she had broken her neck and she was paralyzed. She couldn’t breathe on her own.”

Cinnamon was placed on life support, but she was brain damaged and unresponsive. After a heartbreaking, two-week vigil, the family decided they had to let their little girl go. The Elkings blame the shield booster for not protecting Cinnamon.

Thompson: “But isn’t it possible that it wasn’t the booster seat and that Cinnamon could have been killed anyway?”

Lillian Elking: “I don’t believe so.”

Trooper John Sears also believes that the seat didn’t do enough to protect the little girl.

Thompson: “You’re the father of two daughters. Would you put your children in this booster seat?”

Sears: “Absolutely not. Absolutely not.”

The Elking family sued. And they are are just one of many grieving families who received a settlement from the company. A Dateline search of court records nationwide shows Cosco has been sued at least 42 times by families who charged the shield booster failed to protect their child from serious injury, or death.

Of those 42 cases, Dateline found Cosco paid settlements to 29 families. A settlement is not an admission of wrongdoing. Cosco won a case — the child’s father had been drinking. One case was dismissed, and 11 are still pending.

Bruce Cazenave: “We do not market a seat that is not safe, period. Absolutely, we will not do that.”

Bruce Cazenave is the U.S. CEO of Cosco’s parent company, Dorel Industries.

Thompson: “There are parents out there who really believe that the Cosco shield booster seat was responsible for their child’s death. What do you say to them?”

When Dylan White plays video games, his dad has to push all the buttons. Dylan can only watch. He’s been a quadriplegic since the 1999 accident, when he was ejected from his Cosco shield booster and found unconscious on the median strip of a North Carolina highway. His father, Blake, is just one of dozens of parents who have sued Cosco over the performance of the shield booster.

In all, Dateline has found since 1987, more than 40 children have been killed or seriously injured in accidents while riding in a Cosco shield booster seat. But Bruce Cazenave, the head of Cosco in the U.S. insists the shield booster is safe.

Thompson: “There are parents out there who really believe that the Cosco shield booster seat was responsible for their child’s death. What do you say to them?”

Cazenave: “Well, first of all, I’d have to say that I’m very sorrowed. I also would tell them that I wish there was a car seat out there that would provide total protection in every injury and every fatality type of situation. That product and technology does not exist.”

Cazenave says Cosco has commissioned demanding tests, like a rollover crash and this side impact test — to demonstrate its shield booster is safe. Cazenave says these and federal tests shows Cosco shield boosters perform as well as, if not better than, other types of child restraints. And he says Cosco not only has tests, it has real world cases.

Cosco asked us to visit Michelle Moore...who at age five, weighing 38 pounds, was held safely in her Cosco Grand Explorer shield booster, after the family’s car was hit and flipped over on its roof. The Moore’s still use a Grand Explorer for their younger daughter, and credit the seat with saving Michelle.

Mr. Moore: “This car seat did exactly what it was supposed to do, and it saved her life.”

Dr. Burton, the child restraint system expert, says Michelle Moore must have fit snugly into the shield booster.

Burton: “If I’m not the perfect fit, where I’m really wedged in here, then I can actually come completely out of the side of this thing because there is nothing holding me in the side.”

But Cosco says it has conducted a statistical analysis that shows shield booster seats are...”Protecting young children from fatal injury.”

Cazenave: “Based on the fatalities that we’ve experienced with 10 million units sold, that on average we are half the level of expected fatalities versus other car seats.”

Burton dismisses the Cosco statistical analysis as a numbers game.

Burton: “The bottom line is, though, not numbers. The bottom line is if it’s your child or my child that’s brain damaged or quadriplegic or paraplegic or dead, and you could have prevented it by a different seat design, is my child worth this seat being on the market?”

He maintains a harness child seat is just a much safer choice, and showed us why. The head motion, the head speed, everything is coupled to the car that’s slowing down with the child. The vehicle is not just throwing the child ahead of it over the shield. The five point harness is totally controlling the child’s motion.

Burton says accidents in which kids are in the same car — but riding in different types of safety seats — provide a direct comparison between shield boosters and harness seats.

Remember Brittany Black? She was ejected and killed while her two brothers, who were belted in, walked away unhurt. And in the case of Christopher Armstrong, he was riding with his two brothers in the family van when it veered off the road and rolled over. His brothers, who were belted in and held in their seats, suffered only bumps and bruises. But the 33 pound Christopher came out of his Cosco Explorer shield booster, was ejected from the vehicle, and killed. his family sued and Cosco paid an undisclosed settlement, which is not an admission of wrongdoing.

Burton: “A person who is informed, and knows there’s a difference, would never choose a less safe device. And this shield booster is a less safe device than many other types of child safety seats.”

Thompson: “Cosco says, ‘of course he’s going to criticize our product, he represents families where children have been hurt.’”

Burton: “And I say absolutely. I do criticize them, I’ve been fair, though. I’ve criticized the design. But I think that the overwhelming opinion in the scientific community, worldwide, supports what I’m telling you today.”

Indeed, these top research centers, children’s hospitals and medical groups tell parents not to use the shield booster seat for children under 40 pounds. The American Academy of Pediatrics carries a strong warning on its web site about the “significant” dangers of shield boosters.

In fact, the Australian government has never allowed shield boosters in that country. And since 1983 it’s been illegal in Canada to use a shield booster for a child under 40 pounds.

What about the U.S. government? Well, the Centers for Disease Control says children between 30 and 40 pounds or less should be in a forward facing seat with a harness, rather than a shield booster. But it’s the Department of Transportation that has final say on child seat approval, and it approves of the Cosco shield booster. A spokesman did tell Dateline it’s now aware of the safety concerns about the seat. He said the department is monitoring the situation.

Meanwhile, the families of children injured or killed while riding in a Cosco shield booster are trying to cope with their loss. Dylan White has his music and his family. His father hopes it is enough to see him through.

Blake: “I’m furious with this company, I want this off the market. I don’t want anybody else to get hurt and I don’t want anybody else to go through this.”

Congress directed the Department of Transportation to come up with tougher federal standards for safety seats. The new regulations could mandate rear and side impact crash testing before a seat is approved for sale.

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