Child Restraint Systems

By Kevin T. Veugeler

As the summer travel season swings into high gear, one often overlooked safety concern is defective child car seats. Under Illinois law, all children 8-years-old or younger must be in a child restraint system while traveling in a car, unless that child is 57 inches or more tall. The car seat requirement includes rear facing infant seats, forward facing toddler seats and booster seats for older children. In order to comply with the law, the car seat must meet standards set forth by the United States Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Unfortunately, the NHTSA standards are not particularly stringent, and the testing procedures are minimal. Under the federal requirements, child restraint systems must provide protection from injury in frontal crashes up to 30 mph. Absent from the requirements is industry wide testing by the federal government. Instead, NHTSA relies on test results submitted by the manufacturers. This reliance has been found to be inadequate as some manufacturers have simply submitted passing test results while concealing those tests in which the child seat failed the requirements.

Another flaw in the federal standards is the lack of any requirements for side impacts, rear-end impacts, or rollovers. It has been found that many car seats that meet the 30 mph frontal crash requirements fail to provide protection in other types of collisions.

WHAT CAN BE DONE TO PROTECT YOUR CHILDREN FROM DEFECTIVE CAR SEATS?

First, if you already have a car seat, check with NHTSA to determine if your car seat has been recalled due to a defect. (888)DASH-2-DOT or (888)-787-5431). The NHTSA website lists over a hundred models of child restraint systems that have been recalled due to defects.

Never use a car seat that has already been involved in an accident, no matter how minor and even if it looks fine, as it may have been weakened. In addition, car seats have expiration dates. Never use a car set that is too old. The expiration date may be on the seat itself or can be provided by the manufacturer.

Always ensure that the car seat is appropriate for the height, weight and age of your child. Further, it is imperative that the seat is properly installed. The car seat must be tightly secured to the car and the harness and seat belt must be snug over the child's body, particularly over the shoulders and pelvis. Many fire stations, hospitals and incident centers have certified child passenger safety technicians that can help install you car seat safely. A list of certified technicians in your area is available on the NHTSA website.
If you are looking to purchase a safe, effective car seat, look to consumer publications for new child restraint system ratings. Look for those publications that perform independent crash tests, in all types of collisions. In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding shield boosters, despite the fact that the boosters meet current NHTSA standards, due to the increased risk of injury.

Finally, be sure to return the manufacturer's product registration post cards so that you will be notified if the car seat has been recalled or a defect in the seat has been identified.

Next month we will discuss further some specific issues of recall. (Part II can be found here).