Here’s one more thing for parents of small children to worry about — many children’s car seats may not meet federal safety guidelines. The reason is that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration hasn’t yet developed a lifelike child crash test dummy.
According to an article in the Washington Post, “Seats for children who weigh more than 65 pounds – a growing part of the car seat market, partly because of the increase in childhood obesity – are not held to any government safety requirements. Seats for smaller children and infants are regulated only for their effectiveness in front-end collisions.”
Here are a few excerpts from the article, which is worth reading in full:
Problems with developing child dummies are also a key reason why seats for all children have no federal requirements for effectiveness in side-impact, rear-end and rollover collisions, car seat experts said.
Parents are confronted with a barrage of safety seat choices for children of all sizes. More than 100 models for infants, toddlers and older children are on the market, according to CarseatBlog.com, which is written by parents and car seat experts who monitor the industry. Many parents say they find little information about seats beyond what they cull from private testing organizations, such as Consumer Reports magazine and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Car seat manufacturers “self-certify” that their seats meet the safety standards that do exist. The NHTSA tests 75 to 90 models each year, said Ronald Medford, the agency’s deputy administrator. Those that do not comply with federal rules are recalled.
The NHTSA only tests for crash protections that are regulated. That leaves parents to rely on manufacturers’ assurances for the higher weight seats and for side-impact protections, seat-belt fit and other potential injury factors.
Safety experts say a lack of funding for researching and developing lifelike child test dummies has caused the NHTSA’s oversight of safety seats to lag years behind in a highly competitive industry that evolves to meet demand.
Car seats with harnesses designed just a few years ago to hold children who weigh up to 65 pounds are now marketed for up to 85 pounds. Manufacturers say they are catering to parents of overweight children, some who reach 40 pounds by 21/2 years old – too young and often too short for the next step, a belt-positioning booster seat.
Parents also are seeking harness seats for older disabled children and are responding to experts’ findings that harnesses distribute crash forces more evenly than seat belts, industry observers said. Booster seats designed to help properly position adult-size seat belts on children’s smaller frames are marketed for up to 120 pounds.
Critics say the lag in government oversight has left some higher-weight seats vulnerable to being used incorrectly. The NHTSA has not determined whether seats for children 65 pounds and over could overload vehicles’ LATCH anchor and tether restraint systems. The LATCH (lower anchors and tethers for children) systems, installed in new vehicles since 2002, were designed to secure safety seats holding children 48 pounds or less, according to automakers.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has asked the NHTSA to prioritize fixing the dummy to allow regulators to test for crash forces on the head. Measuring those forces is critical to monitoring for serious or potentially fatal injuries, said Marilyn Bull, a medical director and car seat specialist for the Automotive Safety Program at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health.
“The head flops farther forward on a child,” Bull said. “You’ll get spinal fractures, paralysis and even death.”
Adult-size dummies are based on 40 years of research, including data from actual collisions and crash tests using adult cadavers. However, researchers said, children are in vehicles less often than adults and, in turn, are involved in far fewer collisions. That leaves less real-world crash data to help determine how much force their bodies can tolerate before injuries occur. Car seat researchers said dummy designers have been reluctant to use children’s cadavers for tests.
Without that information, researchers said, child dummies have been designed primarily by scaling down adult dummies and using medical data from living children. Developing a lifelike dummy whose test results can be replicated can take decades and cost several million dollars, researchers said.
“We know kids are put together differently,” said Kristy Arbogast, engineering director for the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “They’re not just little adults. They’re different mechanical structures… NHTSA doesn’t have the money to fund all the research we need” to develop accurate dummies.