At Long Last: Easier and Safer Child Seat Installation

For years, parents have struggled with proper child seat installation in their vehicles. For years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has struggled with finding a solution to this problem. Currently, approximately 80% of people make at least one significant error in using child restraint seats. In addition, in the past few years there has been mounting frustration with the effort required to properly install a child seat. NHTSA's consumer complaint Hotline received almost 20,000 calls in just the first eight months of 1998 from people about problems associated with correctly installing their child seat.

As we approach the 21st century, NHTSA has issued a final rule which requires both vehicle and child seat manufacturers to redesign their respective products. The new design changes will make all child seats compatible with all vehicles. Parents and caregivers will no longer have to deal with the constant readjustment and uncertainty in securing childseats as is the case with the current belt system. Unfortunately, the final rule fails to require the new design for the rear center seating position thus falling short in providing consumers with the safest alternative for this location.

The New Design

The new child seats will have three attachment points which will secure into anchor points in the car. While the final rule does not require child seats to be equipped with top tethers, almost all child seat models will have one in order to limit the movement of child's head in the event of a crash. The new child seats will also permit installation in older model vehicles which do not have the anchorage system. Parents with older model vehicles will still be able to secure the new childseats using the traditional method of weaving the lap belt through the seat.

In minivans the rule will require that the manufacturers install at least one anchorage point in the second row of seats to afford parents easier supervision of their child. The rule does not affect the use of integrated child seats for parents or manufacturers who favor this option. However, even those cars or minivans equipped with an integrated child seat must also have the child seat anchorage points as well, in at least one or two other seating position.

In sedans, the redesigned child seats can be placed in the rear seat of cars. Each car must have at least two vehicle anchorage systems located in the rear seat. In this configuration, it is likely that the anchorage points will be located in the rear outboard position directly behind the driver and passenger seat.

Those cars with three seating positions in the back seat will be required to have three locations for securing the childseat. However, the center seating position will consist only of a lap belt or lap/shoulder belt and a top tether anchor point. NHTSA will not require manufacturers to install the lower anchorage points for the center rear position. NHTSA gives two reasons in support of this configuration. First, NHTSA claims that a lower anchorage point in the rear center position would make it difficult to install another childseat next to it. The second reason NHTSA gives is to minimize cost. Finally NHTSA claims that the traditional lap belt along with the top tether "should perform essentially as well as the full child restraint anchorage system."

NHTSA's rationale is misguided. The rule should require anchorage systems in all seating positions in the rear seat including the rear-center. The rear center position is the safest place to secure a child. The outboard seating positions are not as safe because in the event of a side-impact crash, the outboard location directly behind the driver or passenger seat is more vulnerable if one side is hit because of its proximity to the point of impact. In addition, many parents and caregivers prefer the rear center position because it is easier to keep an eye on the child. Therefore in terms of convenience and safety, NHTSA should have offered full and complete protection in the center location.

As the rule currently stands, a parent with one child may be inclined to place him or her in the outboard location to avoid installation problems associated with the lap belt in the center position. Most child seats are quite bulky and large at the base, so even under the current rule it would be very difficult to install one childseat in the middle and one adjacent to it. Thus, anchorage points in all three locations would not affect the placement of two childseats because most parents would have to place them in the outboard positions anyway, regardless of lower anchor points in the center location. The Center for Auto Safety also disagrees that the cost of adding one more anchorage system will be prohibitive.

Use of Child Seat on Airplanes

The issue of child restraint and aircraft compatibility was of concern to NHTSA and the Federal Aviation Administration. It was important that parents not be forced to buy two different types of seats - one for the airplane and one for the car. Fortunately, since the new rule allows for the installation of the newly designed seats using the car seatbelt, this same method can be used on the airplane as well. Even child restraints with rigid connectors at the lower anchor points will be compatible on airplanes because most rigid connectors will be retractable and will not damage the aircraft seat. To ensure that child seat manufacturers will continue to take this issue into account, NHTSA plans to issue a proposal in a few months requiring retractable connectors.

Increase in Cost of Child Seat

Most parents and caregivers were willing to pay more for a seat that was safer and easier to install . The new design may result in higher prices at the store by about $17 per seat. However, the benefit of easier and proper installation resulting in added safety for children is worth the modest increase.

Overall, the new child seat requirements are a giant step forward toward helping parents and caregivers safely secure children in cars. However, the rear center position should be equipped with the anchorage restraint system as well. For a minimum expense parents would have the benefit of this important option of placing their child in the safest location in the safest most secure manner.

From: Lemon Times, Vol. 17, No. 3&4

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