Safety is always a topic of interest to car buyers -- especially when it involves the safety of children inside the cars.
That part of the car-safety equation drew even more attention in late March, when the U.S. Department of Transportation announced it will create a new consumer program to help parents and caregivers find a child car seat that best fits their vehicle. The announcement came after a review of the federal safety standards for child seats.
The review was ordered by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood after a story in the Chicago Tribune questioned the testing methods used by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and also called NHTSA's safety standards into question.
After the review, Transportation issued a statement from Hood saying that NHTSA's current safety standards -- which require child seats to withstand forces that are more severe than 99.5 percent of real-world crashes -- are effective. But LaHood also urged NHTSA to do better and announced the new program.
The task force that reviewed the child-seat safety regulations recommended that NHTSA also add a first-ever side-impact standard for the testing of child safety seats -- and also recommended additional research into possible future improvements to the current frontal impact standard.
Side impact crashes account for one-third of all highway deaths among children under thirteen years old, according to the Transportation department.
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The new program will begin next year with the 2011 model year and is designed to make it easier for parents to choose the right child safety seats for their particular vehicles. To that end, under the program, car manufacturers will issue recommendations to customers, advising them which seats in various price ranges are the best fit for individual vehicles. These kinds of recommendations are currently made by carmakers in European countries.
The review also found that half of all children between the ages of zero to seven years of age who were killed in motor vehicle crashes were not in child safety seats at all.
"Infants and children are our most precious cargo," said Lahood in the statement. "We need to constantly improve our track record and help parents to choose a child seat that fits in their vehicle." But, he also said that "a child safety seat cannot do its job if it's not used at all. Parents and caregivers need to make sure their children are buckled up properly and child seats are installed correctly."
Rae Tyson, a spokesman for NHTSA, concurs.
"Any time a major publication or TV outlet does a story like (the Tribune's story), my fear is that it will suggest to parents that they would be better off not using a seat -- and that would be the most tragic thing of all, "Tyson said. "The seats do offer a high degree of protection, so it would be terrible if people got the wrong impression."
The tests examined in the Tribune story were conducted using 2008 model-year vehicles, and the newspaper criticized NHTSA for not better-publicizing those results.
"We didn't try to hide the information," Tyson said. "It was included in the report we issued after those tests were conducted. However, it's true that the information was not as easy to find as it should have been. So, we've fixed that. It's now in a section that is much easier to locate."
Based on the results of NHTSA's tests, two specific brands / types of child seats were recalled: the Evenflo Discovery and the Combi Connection.
The Tribune story took NHTSA to task for not requiring manufacturers of child safety seats to conduct their own actual car-crash tests before selling the seats. Instead, the seat manufacturers use a sled-bench test that simulates the force of a 30 m.p.h head-on crash.
The Tribune analyzed NHTSA's car-crash tests and concluded that many of the potentially more serious injuries can occur when the baby dummy's head hits the back of the rear seat -- and noted that the sled tests conducted by the seat manufacturers cannot pick up this particular potential for injury because there is no front seat in front of the child seat in the sled tests. The paper's conclusion was that the effectiveness of the child seats can be more accurately determined in an actual car-crash test, instead of using the sled bench test.
"That suggestion may have some merit," Tyson said. "That's one of the things we're evaluating. But that's one of those 'good news, bad news' situations. In some instances, if you evaluate the tests, the back of the front seat can actually provide some additional protection, like on a school bus. But, in other situations, it can contribute to more injuries. We still need to finish evaluating those results."
The Tribune story also critiqued NHTSA for not providing safety ratings for child car seats like it does for cars.
"It's true that NHTSA's tests are more about the cars than the car seats," said Tyson, adding that NHTSA has been crash-testing vehicles since 1979 and giving them safety ratings, but only began testing child car seats in 2001.
"We decided a few years ago to test the child seats while we were also testing the vehicles, to see if there is some way to rate the safety seats the way we rate cars," he said. "But one thing we realized early on is that the test results can often say more about the vehicles than it tells us about the seats."
One of the findings in NHTSA's testing of car seats in '08 models -- and reported in the Tribune's story -- involved the Infiniti EX35 hatchback. During testing, the vehicle's back seat moved to such an extent upon frontal-crash impact that the top and bottom seat cushions separated.
"We evaluated the results of this particular NHTSA test," said Kyle Bazemore, an Infiniti spokesperson. "And our analysis is that the child dummy performance is related to the child-restraint system itself, not the rear seatback. We remain confident in the overall passenger safety of the Infiniti EX."
Bazemore noted that the Infiniti EX was named a "Top Safety Pick" by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
"Finding the appropriate child restraint system that fits best in your vehicle, and ensuring that it's installed properly, remains an important part of protecting children," Bazemore said. "Our engineers have evaluated hundreds of child restraints to determine those that best fit Infiniti vehicles, and in 2002, we became the first luxury automaker to help owners confidently select a child restraint that best fits their vehicle through the Snug Kids Child Safety Seat Fit Guide."
This program also provides tips on the proper fit of a child restraint, and this information is continually updated, Bazemore says. Current child restraint recommendations for the Infiniti EX can be found at www.infinitiusa.com.
"We do a lot of testing, for the purposes of research, and we haven't yet drawn conclusions about what a lot of the data means," Tyson said. "This is research, and often, the data you get from research is not something that you can easily make sense out of in the short term. Sometimes, research results raise more questions than they answer."
The NHTSA tests also revealed that, in some cases, infant seats strapped inside small cars performed better than they did in large vehicles.
"There appears to be something going on there, having to do with the way that forces are distributed to the back seat, but no firm conclusions on that have been reached yet," he says.
"In those cases, it's helpful to see if those situations are repeatable when we look at real-world data. But we haven't seen any data yet to suggest that these results are repeated out on the roads."
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