Parents should not rush to transition their growing children to the next stage of child car seat -- such as moving from a harnessed seat to a booster -- because each change could mean a step down in safety, Consumer Reports’ child safety experts say.
The best practice for when to safely transition your child, such as at a certain weight or height threshold, might not always match what is permitted on the manufacturer label, Consumer Reports experts have found from CR’s car seat testing.
This disparity highlights the risk of relying solely on car seat manufacturer specifications when deciding the next option for your child. It also underscores the need for standardized industry practices that are government-regulated.
Findings published this week by ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization, highlighted the industry practice of sometimes labeling booster seats as appropriate for children starting at 30 pounds, despite research and recommendations from medical groups, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), that children are safer when they remain seated in a harnessed forward-facing seat. CR recommends children stay harnessed for as long as possible because of the safety benefits. CR deducts points in its testing for any booster seat with a label that certifies that it can be used below a 40-pound weight threshold.
Indeed, almost half the boosters in Consumer Reports’ ratings have labels indicating that kids who are 30 pounds can safely use the seats.
The ProPublica investigation also highlights that there is currently no federal standard for the side-impact performance of car seats, despite language on the seats or their packaging claiming side-impact testing.
Car seat manufacturers conduct proprietary side-impact testing, but how they do it and the results are not public. The claims of side-impact protection vary among manufacturers and don’t necessarily indicate any standardized measure of side-impact protection from seat to seat.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been mandated to develop side-impact testing standards for car seats, but that effort has languished.
“Time and time again, we see evidence that manufacturers won’t put safety first unless required to do so,” says Ethan Douglas, senior policy analyst at Consumer Reports. “There is an urgent need for NHTSA to stop dragging its feet on mandatory side-impact performance requirements for all child car seats.”
Car seats have proved to be effective at reducing the potential for injury and death for children in automotive crashes. In a crash, the risk of injury is reduced by 71 to 82 percent with car seat use and by 45 percent with booster use (children 4 to 8 years old) compared with using the vehicle seat belt alone. The protection offered by any car seat is better than not using one.
Still, parents and caregivers should keep in mind that the minimum height, weight, and even age guidelines on the labels and instructions that come with a car seat might not always be the best in terms of a child’s overall safety. Children are better restrained, and consequently safer, when secured by a five-point harness in a forward-facing car seat than when they’re using a seat belt in a booster seat. Parents should follow best practice recommendations (outlined in the chart below) while staying within the car seat’s height and weight limits.
Even though you might think your child seems old enough or weighs enough to transition to the next seat, there are many things to consider.
“Age is a significant factor in determining the skeletal strength of your child’s bones to withstand crash forces,” says Emily Thomas, Ph.D., automotive safety engineer at Consumer Reports’ Auto Test Center. “Allowing your child to stay harnessed up to the height or weight limit of their forward-facing harnessed car seat can help ensure that their body is strong enough to transition to a booster.”
Thomas adds that “kids in booster seats need to be able to sit upright with proper belt fit for the entire car ride. This developmental readiness may occur at different ages because every child is different.”
The majority of forward-facing convertible seats, toddler-boosters (or harness-to-boosters), and all-in-one models have harnessed-weight capacities of 65 pounds or more when used forward-facing. This allows parents to keep their children harnessed longer than the 30- to 40-pound minimum weights that some booster seat manufacturers indicate. Once kids exceed those harness height and weight limits, booster seats remain the best way of providing school-age children with the proper belt fit to protect them in frontal and side-impact crashes.
The same logic holds true when making the transition from rear- to forward-facing orientation for younger children. Most convertible and all-in-one car seats -- those that can be rear- and forward-facing -- have labels that allow children between 20 and 22 pounds to be forward-facing. But that doesn’t mean that those minimum weight thresholds are the appropriate time to make this transition.
Backed by research, the AAP and CR recommend that children stay in a rear-facing seat until at least 2 or until they exceed the height or weight limit of their rear-facing car seat, which also means they are probably heavier than those 20- to 22-pound minimums.
Bottom line: Don’t rush to advance your child to the next type of seat.
What parents with booster-age children should do
If you are using any booster seat, and your child weighs less than 40 pounds and is younger than 4 years old, CR recommends that you return your child to a forward-facing harness seat. If your child weighs more than 40 pounds, is at least 4 years old and already using a booster seat, he can continue to use it. But be sure that the seat belt fits your child properly in her booster seat and that your child can stay that way for an entire car ride. If he hasn’t yet moved to a booster seat, keep him in a forward-facing harness up to the car seat’s height or weight limit.