The federal government had requested that Graco recall 1.8 million more car seats, but has so far been rebuffed in its efforts by the company, which claims in a filing that customers are experiencing "perception" and "frustration" issues and not mechanical ones.
An investigation conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration revealed more than 6,100 cases in which parents or caregivers had great difficulty unlatching the car-seat buckle and complained to Graco, a maker of childcare products like car seats and high chairs. In some cases, the parents were unable to unlatch them at all, and needed to resort to measures like cutting the seat's straps.
Investigators and emergency workers feared that some children would become trapped in their car seats during an emergency, prompting the recall, which affects seats made between 2009 and 2013 that contain the Signature, QT and QT3 buckles.
NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation said its scrutiny of the company and its investigation of the disputed 1.8 million car seats will remain ongoing. In public documents, the federal agency was unusually blunt in criticizing both Graco's recall efforts and the mechanics of the malfunctioning latches themselves.
Graco had received more than 6,100 complaints from parents who had difficulty unbuckling their children, according to case documents. NHTSA itself said it had received 135 complaints. In those cases, the agency said 14 people cut the straps to remove their child, and 35 loosened them and maneuvered children out of the seat while the straps remained buckled. Some parents told NHTSA they had to seek help from emergency responders to remove their children from the seats.
Graco told federal investigators the stuck buckles didn't pose an unreasonable safety risk to users and that it knew of no injuries associated with the problem.
But the company is a named defendant in a wrongful death lawsuit filed in California, in which the plaintiff alleges that Graco's "Nautilus" car seat was extremely difficult to unlatch after a car accident. Two-year-old Leiana Ramirez was killed in an ensuing car fire.
Graco's seat recall includes: the Toddler Convertible Car Seats, Cozy Cline, Comfort Sport, Classic Ride 50, My Ride 65, My Ride 70, Size4Me 70, My Size 70, Head Wise 70, Smart Seat, harnessed Booster Seats, Nautilus 3-in-1, Nautilus Elite and Argos. Seven more models are among the disputed.
Graco did not return an email seeking comment about the recall. Ashley Mowrey, a company spokesperson, told CNN that "this is not a new issue for us." The company believes the stuck latches are attributed to spills of food and drink, and in a written statement, maintains that the seats are safe for continued use.
The Office of Defects Investigation disagrees, and tells parents to consider "an alternative car seat for transporting children until their Graco seat is fixed." It's unusual for NHTSA and a company recalling a product to disagree on the problem's merits – and even more unusual for the agency and a company to disagree on the ongoing safety of the product.
Graco redesigned the latches on more recent models, and is offering its "new and improved" replacement buckles to customers at no cost. Parents or caregivers can get one by calling 1-800-345-4109 or by emailing email@example.com.
While the company insists the problems are merely of perception, complaints from actual users are more daunting. In one complaint received by NHTSA, a mother said she spent 45 minutes attempting to unbuckle her daughter. A passer-by in a parking lot attempted to help her.
"The man was also shocked to see that he wasn't getting it unbuckled with strong force," said the parent, whose identity is not revealed in the complaint database. "We debated cutting it apart; we also debated calling 911 to have the fire department unleash it."
Another parent said: "This past week, [the buckle] would not release so my son was stuck in the car seat. We had to use pliers to force the latch to release."
Although Graco markets the buckles as "quick release," NHTSA criticized the cumbersome process needed to unlatch them.
"All that should be required to release the harness buckle is to simply push the release button," it said in recall documents. But Graco's mechanism, it said, is "uncommon and not intuitive and should not be required to remove a child from a car seat."
Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.