What you should know about infant car seat safety

If you’ve paid attention to the news lately, you may have seen some articles about rear-facing car seats that were crash tested by Consumer Reports.

In the past, many CPSTs (Child Passenger Safety Technician), myself included, have been skeptical of Consumer Reports’ crash tests because we’ve had some issues with the interpretation of their results — they weren’t terribly transparent with their processes, and the results didn’t always match what we see in real life.

But this year, they made changes, all for the better.

For crash testing this year, Consumer Reports created a new crash-testing sled for their seats with a few major changes. Unlike U.S. crash testing in the past, Consumer Reports used a lap and shoulder belt to install the car seats they were crash testing, yielding a slightly different and sometimes more solid installation. They also used a seat with a bit more padding, which is more common in today’s vehicles than other crash-test seats. They also added a padded block in front of the car seat as a way to mimic having a vehicle seat in front of the child restraint. This is a little unusual because most crash testing looks at head excursion for forward-facing seats, but typically forward movement is not tested in rear-facing seats.

And what we learned from Consumer Reports is that we probably should have been testing it all along.

When Consumer Reports tested only rear-facing seats (infant bucket seats) with 22-pound, 29-inch dummies, they found that 53 percent of the dummies struck the padded block in a frontal crash. You’re probably wondering how that’s possible if the child is within the height and weight limits, right?

Well, when rear-facing in a frontal collision, the crash forces the car seat harness webbing to stretch slightly (which is why it’s so important that the harness is always snug and that you replace your seat after a crash), which allows the child to ride upwards in the seat. So if an average-sized 1-year-old slid upwards in the infant carrier, it would hit it’s head on the back of the vehicle seat in front of them. However, Consumer Report new test has shown that when a 22-pound dummy was placed in a rear-facing convertible car seat, as opposed to an infant carrier, only one of the 25 dummy head’s hit the backseat.

So what does this mean? I think that there are three big takeaways from these tests.

First, we really need to make sure that kids are harnessed properly. If kids are riding up so much that they are striking the vehicle seat behind them when properly harnessed, the risk of ejection and front seat contact is extremely significant with a loose harness. Make sure that you’re doing the pinch test every single time you put your child in the car, and never put puffy coats on in the car.

The second, is that we should make sure that infant seats are positioned away from the vehicle seat in front of them as much as possible. This is somewhat easier to do in the middle seating position (which is also the safest seating position). But if the child is behind the passenger seat, move that seat up as much as is tolerable for the passenger (and still gives them 12 inches from the airbag). That may reduce or prevent that head contact in the event of a crash.

And finally, I think that the recommendation that Consumer Reports made is probably a good one. They state that kids need to be moved into a convertible car seat by their first birthday. While many seats go up to 32 inches or 35 pounds, it seems that we need to make the move to a bigger seat earlier than that to provide optimal safety. Note that if your child’s head is less than 1 inch from the top of the car seat, he/she is too tall for that car seat.

As you start looking for that next seat, it’s important to remember that rear-facing after age 1 is still significantly safer than forward-facing (and in some states, it’s illegal!). So when you move out of that infant seat, make sure that you’re looking at convertible seats that allow your child to rear face until at least age 2, but ideally up to age 4.

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