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Consumer Reports test on combination child seats finds fault with five models

But there are some significant caveats

Correction: An earlier version of this post singled out one of the seats as having the most serious issue, but all five the seats cited by Consumer Reports had similar structural integrity issues, and CR rated them all as offering a "basic" margin of safety. Also, CR began its more rigorous testing regimen five years ago; the earlier version said four. The corrected post appears below.

Few headlines would get a parent worked up faster than "Your child seat is unsafe." That's the subtext a parent might glean from a Consumer Reports headline about combination child seats. Those are forward-facing car seats with removable harnesses; the harness stays in to secure smaller children but can be removed to secure larger children in the seat with the vehicle's seatbelt. After CR examined a number of units, the magazine said five models made by Britax, Cosco, Graco, and Harmony "break in CR's tests."

On each of the seats, either the structure that supports the top tether or the harness support hardware in the shell near the child's shoulder area broke. On the Graco Atlas 65 and Cosco Finale, crash tests "resulted in pieces of sharp plastic in areas that may contact the child." That happened when the seat, rated for 65 pounds, was tested with 52- and 62-pound dummies. But CR doesn't say if the test dummies measured any damage, or if these failures would hurt a child. CR says near the beginning of the article that it "knows of no injuries related to the structural failures revealed in our crash tests." We have no way of knowing if the seats are truly dangerous, or if it's only that they can't stand up flawlessly to tests they weren't engineered for. CR gave all five seats a rating of "basic."

That's where the small print comes in. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the same agency that tests and certifies vehicles for sale in the U.S., tests and certifies all child seats. Every model tested by CR fulfills the government's standard, but CR developed a harsher test to "highlight car seats that provide a greater margin of safety." The NHTSA runs a car seat on a sled into a barrier at 30 miles per hour, for instance, while CR performs the same test at 35 mph. Since the baby-seat makers — like nearly all companies — engineer their products to fulfill the federal criteria, it's not surprising the seats have issues in harder tests.

The Juvenile Products Manufacturers' Association issued a statement on third-party testing that didn't mention CR but is clearly aimed at the magazine. The U.S. and European nonprofit organization Car Seats for the Littles wrote a lengthy response to the CR piece, saying in the end that "we stand by the industry standards," but also, "We absolutely respect what Consumer Reports is trying to do with this reporting, but we're not so fond of the fear-provoking headlines." The organization did the same thing five years ago when CR changed its test protocol to go beyond the federal standard.

The companies also responded to the CR test, saying that they meet U.S. standards and haven't fielded any injury reports from their seats, but that they would continue a dialogue with CR.

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