Is the world becoming a safer place for infants and toddlers? Unfortunately, parents who wonder that are likely to get a mixed message when it comes to baby gear. That’s because proposed safety standards for some products still await approval, or standards have been approved but product labels don’t reflect that, although manufacturers already might meet those standards.
WELL SEATED. Two updates to federal car-seat regulations that went into effect in 2014 change the guidelines on how seats should be anchored and require that car-seat manufacturers use a new, heavier crash-test dummy to conduct tests.
Car-seat manufacturers now are required to use a crash-test dummy that represents a 10-year-old child who weighs 77 pounds when they test car seats that are rated for at least 65 pounds. Consequently, says Joseph Colella, who is a child-passenger-safety advocate and who has worked closely with National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and manufacturers, you’ll see more car seats that list a lower maximum weight. Car seats that previously were claimed to handle 70 pounds or more could be labeled for a maximum of 65 pounds if those models can’t demonstrate adequate protection when they’re tested with the heavier dummy.
The other rule change affects the weights at which all car seats can be installed by using the vehicle’s lower anchors, which are the metal tabs to which a car seat fastens in a vehicle’s rear seat. NHTSA says that if the combined weight of the child and the car seat is more than 65 pounds, then the car seat should be installed with the vehicle’s seat belt instead of the lower anchors. The rule addresses concerns that heavier children and car seats could cause the anchors to fail during a crash, which could allow the car seat to break free.
Regardless of whether the lower part of the car seat is attached by anchors or the seat belt, parents still should use the car seat’s top tether, which is the strap that reduces the forward and side-to-side movement of a car seat, Colella says. “This significantly improves protection for a child’s head and neck when forward-facing,” he says.
Unfortunately, no standard exists for side-impact crash testing. Nearly all car seats carry side-impact test labels, but without a federal standard in place, consumers don’t know how the seats were tested. Currently, each manufacturer sets its own standards for side-impact crash testing. Consequently, consumers can’t tell quickly which models have the safest design and materials.
Side-impact-crash testing standards for car seats have been in the works since 2003, according to Colella. NHTSA has “an idea of a direction to go in, and they have a side-impact dummy in mind to measure performance. Everything else is still up in the air,” he says. Although a proposal for test standards was released in January 2014, changes could be made before that’s finalized, he says. Still unresolved are whether booster seats will be exempt from the side-impact test standards and whether car seats for children who weigh more than 40 pounds have to be tested according to the new rules.
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In 2009, then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood ordered NHTSA to develop a side-impact safety standard for car seats. We asked NHTSA what’s taking so long. Creating a side-impact standard for car seats requires significant research and development to ensure that the tests are rigorous enough, NHTSA says. Disappointingly, neither NHTSA nor Department of Transportation responded to our requests for further information on why the process is dragging on.
According to NHTSA, the new standards would require car seats to be used on a sled test that simulates a T-bone crash, “where the front of a vehicle traveling 30 mph strikes the side of a small passenger vehicle traveling at 15 mph.” In the proposed test, car seats must demonstrate that they can restrain a child by preventing harmful head contact with an intruding vehicle and reducing the crash forces that are transmitted to the child’s head and chest, NHTSA says.
Although the public-comment period for the proposed rules ended in October 2014, the new standards aren’t likely to arrive soon, because two phases remain in the rulemaking process—the evaluation phase and the manufacturer-compliance phase. Given NHTSA’s practices, we believe that the earliest that we would see new standards take effect would be 2018. When we asked when a final rule might be released, NHTSA told us that it had no estimate.