NBC News
updated 2/14/2004 6:08:27 PM ET 2004-02-14T23:08:27

Car accidents are the leading cause of death for children. Parents want to do everything possible to keep their children safe, but do you know if the safety seat your child is riding in will provide the best protection? NBC'S Chief Consumer Correspondent Lea Thompson says the choice is not at all obvious.

The government runs tests and rates cars to tell you how well your vehicle will protect you from injury and death in frontal and side impact accidents. But what about your most precious cargo: your child?

“Not all child safety seats are made the same, and parents should know that,” says Ricardo Martinez, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The government requires child safety seats to simply restrain a child size dummy in a 30 mile-an-hour frontal sled test. It does no testing for possible ejection in a rollover, or the deadliest accident , being hit broadside.

“The question is,” says Martinez, “how do you differentiate between seats that passed the minimum standards and those that exceed them by quite a bit?”

Martinez says there needs to be a rating system for car seats.

Dr. Joe Burton agrees. A restraint systems expert and former coroner, he has investigated more than a thousand accidents involving children. Burton points out it would be easy and inexpensive for the government to do it, just by putting a child dummy in tests it is already doing. 

"There is no difference in adding the child safety seat in the rear seat of those same vehicles,”  says Dr. Burton. “We're already running them into walls at 30 miles an hour. Real cars.”

So, the government already requires a test that would be a great test for child safety seats?

“Absolutely,” says Dr. Burton.

the traffic safety agency is currently studying the idea of adding child seats to frontal and side impact crashes but, even if it decides to do it on a regular basis, there are no plans to rate child protection like the government rates adult safety in cars.

Dr. Martinez urges parents not to base the purchase of a child safety seat on price. He says buy a five point harness seat that best suits your child's weight and age.

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