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Recent study findings by Consumer Reports have caused a flurry of news reports about the safety of infant and child car seats. The Consumer Reports tests found that most US-manufactured rear-facing car seats passed the standard U.S. car seat test, which is for a frontal collision tests at 30mph. It turns out that these tests are dangerously inadequate. The crash safety test for most cars is for a frontal collision at 35 mph and a side-impact at 38 mph. When those tests were conducted on infant car seats, nearly all of the car seats failed. The only two seats that passed at this level are manufactured in Europe, where testing is more rigorous than in the US. Problems include seats twisting and coming loose from their bases and the bases themselves failing to remain secured.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) needs to make its testing requirements for car seats as stringent as they are for cars and needs to ensure that the standard system of attaching car seat bases, known as the LATCH (“Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children”) system, is improved. The professional installers at Consumer Reports found difficulty in securing seat bases and also found that in some cases a plain old seat belt worked better than LATCH. If these professionals have trouble, average parents are going to be helpless in knowing if their children’s’ seats are secure. The LATCH issue is only part of the problem, since even the most secure base appears to do nothing to stop the seats themselves from moving or detaching in a collision.

Car seat manufacturers don’t get an automatic pass because they complied with NHTSA standards (though that is just what the anti-justice, aka “tort reform” forces would like). The rules of negligence apply and may amount to a “what did the manufacturers know and when did they know it” test. If U.S. car seat manufacturers knew that their design might lead to readily avoided car seat deaths or serious injury to infants, and failed to address the issue, they might be liable for the tragedies their negligent design caused.

Let’s hope that the Consumer Reports study and the attention it has received will lead to swift action by NHTSA and US car seat manufacturers. Seats that fail even the current standard 30mph crash test, should be recalled. Testing protocol must be improved and match the minimum for car crash tests. The LATCH system must be revisited, and manufacturers should make the installation of seat bases easier for regular people to perform correctly. In addition to federal oversight, it may take some spectacularly successful products liability verdicts on behalf of injured children to spur US manufacturers to improve their car seats.

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