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Making sense of the car seat controversy

Consumer Reports' dire warning and subsequent clarification has safety advocates worried. And it has concerned parents confused. Here's the  bottom line:  Infant car seats are save lives. By ConsumerMan Herb Weisbaum.

When the most trusted name in consumer testing questions the effectiveness of child safety seats, parents pay attention. A story in the February issue of Consumer Reports — now withdrawn — said most of the top-selling brands of car seats “failed disastrously” in the magazine’s crash tests.

Consumer Reports “screwed up,” says Kathryn Kruger, Executive Director of the Washington State Safety Restraint Coalition. “They really upset people and created enormous confusion.”

Last week, Consumer Reports “withdrew” the story after learning the side-impact test that was supposed to be at 38 miles per hour actually simulated a crash of more than 70 mph. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration caught the mistake after reviewing the magazine’s data and redoing the tests.

In a statement on the agency’s Web site, NHTSA Administrator Nicole Nason says she was “troubled” by the magazine’s initial report, “because it frightened parents and could have discouraged them from using car seats.”

Consumer Reports says it will do a second round of testing and prepare a new report. “We take our credibility very seriously,” says Consumer Reports spokesman Douglas Love, who could not tell me when the new testing might be completed.

Real world  test results
All the safety experts I spoke to agree: Car seats work. Period. Dr. Fred Rivara, a pediatrician and injury prevention expert at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, tells me it is “extremely rare” to see a child seriously hurt in a car accident, if that child is riding in a car seat. Normally, the parents come in with severe injuries, he says, “and the baby is smiling and happy because it’s been restrained in a car seat.”

At Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, researchers work with State Farm insurance to gather information on 669,000 car accidents. It’s the largest such database in the world.

“When we look at the field data, we know these seats are very effective,” says researcher Kristy Arbogast. She tells me a child in a car seat “has the lowest risk of injury” of any passenger in the vehicle. In fact, a car seat reduces a child’s likelihood of death in a crash by up to 70 percent.

Every car seat sold in this country must meet strict government standards to insure it can protect a child in a frontal crash of 30 mph. This test “simulates crash forces more severe than 97.6 percent of crashes in the real world,” explains Deborah Stewart, publisher of Safe Ride News.

The editors had a clear agenda
Consumer Reports wants the federal government to toughen its test standards. The editors want the frontal crash speed increased from 30 to 35 mph and a side-impact test added.

This was disclosed in the article, but it got lost in most of the media coverage. And it’s easy see why. The headline on the magazine’s February cover is “Safety Alert: 10 infant car seats FAIL our tests.”

Right now, there is no federal side-impact crash test because safety experts cannot agree on how to conduct that test. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is currently working on such a standard, but this process will take time. Right now there isn’t even a crash dummy designed for such a test.

Side-impact collisions are not the most common type of crash — estimates range from 15 to 25  percent — but they do cause the most injuries and fatalities.

But as Arbogast at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia points out, the speed at which the Consumer Reports side-impact tests were done represent “less than 1 percent of the crashes that occur” in real life. These crashes are so severe, she says, they are considered non-survivable.

What should parents do?
There is no reason to change the seat you currently have, unless it does not fit your car or child properly.

The three most important things you can do:

1. Always put your child in that car seat. You can’t pick the day you’re going to be in a crash. So you must use that seat every time on every trip.2. Make sure your child’s car seat is tightly secured with a seatbelt or latch. It should not wiggle around when you try to move it.3. Make sure the harness fits your child snugly. This will keep him/her from moving around if you are in a crash.

Remember, there’s no one car seat that’s best for everyone. You want to find a seat that is easy and convenient to use; one that fits snugly in your vehicle. Certain combinations just don’t go together very well.

My two cents
In the name of full disclosure let me say that I am a lifetime member of Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports) and am friends with many current and former employees. I always consult the magazine’s ratings before I make any major purchase.

I am greatly troubled by what took place here. Somehow advocacy and product testing got mixed up and parents were needlessly frightened.

I remember the day the story broke, a mother came up to me and said she was “freaking out” because her child’s car seat failed the magazine’s test. How many other parents were needlessly alarmed?

“This is a big disappointment for us,” says the magazine’s Douglas Love.

Sadly, many others feel the same way. Consumer Reports not only has egg on its face, it has a major credibility problem with both readers and safety advocates across the country.

Here’s a thought — rather than simply redoing its tests, the editors should consider working with the government and other safety groups to bring about the change it wants.