The crash dummies were tiny, as small as 22 pounds, and what they went through was brutal. Buckled into infant car seats, they were tossed, twisted and dislodged during simulated crashes.
The Consumer Reports tests seemed to show that many car seats wouldn’t protect babies from side-impact collisions at 38 mph. The magazine described most of the seats as miserable failures.
But on Thursday, two weeks after the initial report that left many parents worried about their babies’ safety, the findings were retracted. The trusted magazine said some of its test crashes were conducted at speeds higher than it had originally claimed.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which performed its own tests after seeing the report and brought the error to the magazine’s attention, said the crash tests were conducted under conditions that would represent being struck at more than 70 mph — about twice as fast as the magazine contended.
“Consumer Reports was right to withdraw its infant car seat test report,” said NHTSA administrator Nicole Nason. “I was troubled by the report because it frightened parents and could have discouraged them from using car seats.”
She said more than 100 worried parents had called the agency’s hot line on the evening the original report was released.
Phil Haseltine, executive director of the National Safety Council’s Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign, said the report had raised doubts among many parents about their car seats.
“I think it’s going to take a substantial educational effort to undo that damage,” he said.
It was an embarrassing revelation for Consumer Reports, which has influence beyond its subscribers and a reputation for objectivity that it supports by turning away all advertising and refusing to permit use of its reviews in others’ advertising.
Spokesman Ken Weine said an internal investigation was under way and he could not yet say how the test may have gone wrong, or who, if anyone, was to blame.
“This is very early,” he said. “We found this information out very recently and as soon as we did we wanted to take the most important step which is openly communicating with consumers.”
He said the magazine would retest the car seats and issue a replacement article soon.
The Yonkers-based magazine tested the type of infant car seat that faces the rear and snaps in and out of a base. It found only two of the 12 seats worth recommending, and it urged a federal recall of one seat, the Evenflo Discovery. Evenflo Co. had immediately disputed the tests’ validity.
However, Weine said a recall was still being urged for the Discovery and for another seat which was judged unacceptable because it did not fit well in several cars. Evenflo said Thursday that it had run 17 tests on randomly purchased Discovery seats in the last week and the seats passed federal standards each time.
The original report found that all the car seats except the Discovery performed adequately in 30 mph frontal crashes, which is the standard for seats sold in the United States. But it noted that cars are tested by federal regulators at higher speeds — 35 mph for frontal crashes and 38 mph for side crashes — so the magazine said it tested the seats at those speeds.
In the 35-mph frontal test, seats separated from their bases, rotated too far or would have inflicted grave injuries, Consumer Reports said. At 38 mph, four seats flew out of their bases following side impact, it said. In one crash, a dummy was thrown 30 feet, it said.
Nason said that when NHTSA tested the same child seats at the same side-impact speed Consumer Reports had claimed, “the seats stayed in their bases as they should, instead of failing dramatically.”
Weine said Thursday there was no information casting doubt on the 35 mph crashes.
The magazine asked its readers and others who may have learned of the tests “to remember that use of any child seat is safer than no child seat, but to suspend judgment on the merits of individual products until the new testing has been completed and the report republished.”
Consumer Reports’ findings are sometimes challenged by manufacturers. In 2004, as part of a settlement of an 8-year-old lawsuit, the magazine said that its finding about the Suzuki Samurai SUV — that it “easily rolls over in turns” — applied only to severe swerving turns on the test track.