Back seat safety with Dr. Emily Thomas

This week Dr. Emily Thomas from Consumer Reports joins us to discuss backseat safety. Did you know that there is technology to remind you not to leave your kids in the car? And it’s not standardized or required, Dr. Thomas walks us through the tech, the safety of car seats and how Consumer Reports conducts testing for these items. It’s a good one.

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note: this is a machine generated transcript and may not be completely accurate. This is provided for convience and should not be used for attribution.

Anthony: You’re listening to there auto be a law, the center for auto safety podcast with executive director, Michael Brooks, chief engineer, Fred Perkins, and hosted by me, Anthony Simonoff. For over 50 years, the center for auto safety has worked to make cars safer.

The morning listeners or afternoon, evening, whatever time of day it is for you. Today we are joined by a special guest, Dr. Emily Thomas. She is the manager of the auto safety department at Consumer Reports Auto Test Center. So welcome to our humble little show.

Dr. Emily Thomas: Good morning.

Fred: Welcome Emily.

Anthony: Good to see you again.

Dr. Emily Thomas: Thank you.

Anthony: All right. As part of this, Fred sent over some notes or Michael sent over some notes and one of the issues that you’re working on is around heat stroke prevention. Is that correct? Did I get the right thing?

Dr. Emily Thomas: Yes. Consumer Reports has been evaluating vehicle integrated and car seat integrated heat stroke prevention technologies for a number of years now.

When the systems first started hitting the market, with the the GMC Acadia. Back in I want to say it was the 2017 model year. We wanted to know how does the system work? Does it work reliably with how they say it’s going to work? And so we began our independent evaluations as the system started to roll out.

Since then, that has evolved into a more robust Evaluation program that is now part of our rear seat safety score. So one of the things that we are looking for on every single test car in our program is whether or not it comes with a vehicle integrated rear occupant alert. And I can go more into that, how we evaluate.

Michael: Well, that’s great. We we have a lot of, we have a lot of love for rear seat safety ratings since it’s been something that’s been left behind by NHTSA and the auto industry over the years. And we, See a lot of problems in rear seats, not just involving children, but involving, the lack of pretensioners and other protections that folks need the back seat.

But I wanted to step back for a moment. We’ve talked about this issue before, we had Jeanette Fennell on the podcast maybe a year and a half ago and discussing some of the hot cars issues. And, I just wanted to take a look real quick at the problem here. We, What we typically are seeing in vehicular heat stroke are very young children.

Children who are essentially children who are too young to remove themselves from their car seat or are unable to exit the vehicle on their own and who, their, I think there are three major modes that, that. How that happens, kids are left forgotten in the vehicle by a caregiver or somehow managed to access the vehicle when no one’s around or they’re not being monitored closely.

And then there are the, the truly awful situations of being intentionally left in the vehicle. And, I think. In order to address that, we see it’s, it varies every year, but, I think the statistics show from 30 to 60 fatalities and many more injuries every year that are attributable to the problem.

And manufacturers look like they’re taking different approaches. I think the Acadia that you just talked about is a, example of the door sequencing kind of thing where they’re not actually detecting a child or something like that is, can you speak, just initially to, the types of technology we’re looking at to address these issues and, what works best,

Dr. Emily Thomas: yeah, absolutely. Like you said, there’s a few mechanisms, right, that we’re aware of as to how these situations happen, and most of the solutions that are currently on the market really address the unintentionally left behind children. It’s something to trigger your memory to help you to check the backseat at the end of your trip.

The gained access scenario, there’s not much available to specifically address that. And we hope to see more technologies, things like automatic locking things of that nature. Really behind all of this technology is not the only solution, right? We have to continue with community education and awareness because people don’t realize a few things.

They don’t realize how quickly a vehicle can heat up. Even when it’s a miles of temperature day, they think that, oh it’s not that warm outside, or it’s cloudy, or I parked in the shade. I cracked open a window. These are things that are, it’s not going to get so hot in my car, but vehicle interiors.

Heat up very quickly, and the other piece that they don’t understand is that children’s bodies can’t, they’re not Physiologically mature enough to thermal regulate on their own as well and as efficiently as adults bodies do. So a child’s body is going to heat up three to five times faster than Then an adult.

So while you might be able to withstand temperatures as it gets hotter and your body is going to efficiently, regulate, you’re in a sweat, you’re going to do different things. Their bodies are not mature enough in order to do all of these things efficiently. So it becomes a more dangerous situation for them and very quickly.

People don’t understand that this can happen so quickly, and of course, no one ever imagines that it could happen to them. So also not understanding sort of the way that our brain works and how easy it is for us to for our brains to want to work efficiently, right? And so it’s going to go into automatic mode where I go from point A to point B every single day.

At this time, my body can, my mind can just automatically make the turns, I use the example often of. If you were ever supposed to stop on the way home and pick up milk and then you get all the way home and realize you did not pick up the milk, it’s because your brain went into autopilot. It’s used to just going home.

It’s not used to the change in routine and unless there’s something to trigger your memory, unless there’s something that tells you, hey, I have to go pick up the milk, you’re probably going to forget. So similarly, Our brains go into autopilot, and as a result, a lot of these situations that we see is because there was a change in routine.

You now have to do an additional stop, or it’s a different caregiver who’s doing the drop off, and so it’s, your brain is not, Ready for that additional piece of information. And unless there’s something that triggers your brain to remind you it’s very easy for our brains to fall susceptible to this lapse.

So the technologies that are currently available in vehicles really can do. One of two things. One, they can provide you with that reminder alert, right, at the end of a trip to help jog your memory, to help trigger that check the backseat. So many of the systems now use a door logic sequence, as you were mentioning, right?

And these will look to see if you have opened a rear door, either just prior to turning the car on or after turning on the car. To make the assumption that you’ve put something or someone in the backseat and then at the end of the trip, you’ll receive a alert or a reminder in your driver cluster, perhaps a new infotainment screen saying to check the backseat.

Now, some of these can be visual only, others are accompanied by audible chimes, which is really what we prefer because we think, we know that the research shows that if you’re using multiple modalities that it’s more likely to capture the attention of the driver so we prefer for it to be an audio visual alert that does that and that’s like the main kind, there’s a few out there that just go off of ignition cycle.

So it’s not really checking if you’ve opened the rear door. The problem there can be that because it does it at the end of every single trip, regardless of whether or not you’ve put something in the back, you’re going to get that reminder fatigue, right? It’s going to become like this false positive and you’re not going to pay attention to it anymore.

You’re just like, Oh, the car doesn’t even know what it’s talking about. Yeah.

Michael: Your condition to it it’s just becomes part of the autopilot that you’re on.

Dr. Emily Thomas: Exactly. It no longer registers to you as something to pay attention to. The other types of systems, and this is what there’s fewer of, are ones that actually do occupant sensing.

And so these are going to be systems that use in the market. What’s currently in the cars in the U. S. Anyways, are ultrasonic sensors or radar sensors to detect motion in the vehicle cabin after the vehicle has been locked. So you’ve you’re the driver. You’ve now exited the vehicle or you’ve turned the car off.

Typically, you’ll get first that first stage. You’ll get the visual, audible, Reminder in the cluster and then now you’ve ignored that or rather you didn’t ignore it. But again, you’re getting yourself out of the car. It’s quickly for it’s quick for our brains to get distracted, right? So you’re out of the car.

Now you’ve locked the car. Now this activates the motion sensors in the vehicle because you did not access the rear. Now the two types of sensors have different capabilities. The ultrasonic sensors are able to detect what I call like gross motion, like large movements. So if you have young children, especially like young infants, don’t really move around a lot in the car or when they’re in their car seats.

Perhaps they’ve fallen asleep. It won’t detect them because they’re not making large enough motions for the ultrasonic sensors to pick them up. The radar sensors have the ability to pick up more fine motions, so these can be things like sleeping children, the rise and fall of the chest like blinking, things of that nature, very fine motions, so even if you did have a child who’s fallen asleep, or you have, a small baby who’s not making a lot of motion, or, Even just as children go through the early stages of heat stroke, right, they’re going to become more lethargic.

So you can’t really expect that they’re going to be waving their hands around and moving and doing a lot of things. So these radar type sensors are able to pick up those more fine movements. When these sensors detect motion,

Fred: excuse me, Emily, can I just interrupt for a second? I’m sorry.

Could you explain for some of our listeners who don’t have the technical background you’ve got, the difference between a radar sensor and an ultrasonic sensor?

I know that sounds basic, but.

Dr. Emily Thomas: No, that’s not it. I want to make sure that I’m going to explain it correctly. Okay. Thank you. I know much better how the ultrasonic sensor works.

I’m not a lot of electronics engineer.

Fred: Let me just jump in then. A radar sensor uses radio energy, and the radio energy gets reflected from The objects inside your car, including the living objects inside your car, and it then interprets that, but the ultrasonic sensor uses very high frequency sound waves.

So it has different characteristics and ultrasonic sensor cannot. detect the basically the same range of information as the radar sensor. You don’t use an ultrasonic sensor to detect airplanes far away. For example, you use a radar sensor to do that, but it’s curious, the overlap between the radar, And the ultrasonic because I guess based on what I’ve learned, the radar can actually detect the heartbeat and the fluid motion inside of the living being that’s in the car, whereas the ultrasonic sensor cannot do that.

It can only image the arms, legs, head motion. Is that correct? Is that a correct understanding?

Dr. Emily Thomas: Yeah, that’s my understanding as well. When we’ve tested these systems out, if we have a car that has an ultrasonic sensor and we just sit in the back seat, we’re not moving, it would not, the sensor would never pick us up.

So we would never get the alert that comes with the system. Motion being detected in the vehicle. So when these vehicles do detect motion, the car will start to honk. It’ll flash its lights and you’ll get a notification via the vehicle’s telematic system to the driver. So that could be a text message.

It could be an email, whatever it is you have set up. If you have the app, you’ll get the push notification. If you’ve turned the notifications on, that’s the other thing, so you have to make sure you’ve gone into the app and you have the notification turned on for your rear occupant alert. When we have the vehicles that have the ultrasonic sensor, we can be sitting still and it will not detect us at all.

If the vehicle has a radar sensor, you can sit still and the vehicle will detect you just by, like you’re saying. The heartbeat, the rise and fall of the chest, even those micro motions is sufficient. The sensitivity of those radar sensors is such that it can pick up those micro motions. What,

Michael: Because you have children who are, presumably asleep, in the backseat of the vehicle, because I know my kid used to love to fall asleep in the backseat of the car to the extent that I would take her out on the parkway for about 20 minutes and just drive and she would fall asleep.

Anthony: It still does that and he’s 19.

Michael: And then, so you’ve got, the. The millimeter wave detection is the newest thing on the block that can detect, truly detect very small movements, breathing, heartbeat. I, from an advocacy standpoint, I think that’s what we’d like to see in every car.

I think it’s probably a little more expensive than some of the systems that are being put in the vehicles now, like the door sequencing, which I think more vehicles are starting to, Put in, but at least from my understanding, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is in the midst of looking at this issue and they are, it appears.

Tending to agree that more needs to be done than just door sequencing. I think we have seen at least five or six deaths in vehicles that have the door sequencing technology suggesting that it’s. While it may be somewhat effective in certain situations, it’s nowhere near perfect and is not a solution to this issue, but at the same time, it’s the millimeter wave detection is, it’s very new technology and it’s, It appears at least that it’s going to take NHTSA a little longer to wrap their head around that, to write standards before they can mandate that vehicle manufacturers put that into cars.

Have you, and have y’all tested any of the millimeter wave radar systems and compared their effectiveness to some of the other types?

Dr. Emily Thomas: Yeah. So in our ratings program, we have looked at vehicles that have the ultrasonic sensors and those that have the radar sensors. And so in our test, when we look at the occupant sensing systems, we will look to see, can it detect large movements?

That’s, one set of points and then can it detect fine movements? If it can do both. Then it gets more points. They can only do the large movements, right? It doesn’t get the full bandwidth of what’s available in terms of, um, being rewarded for that. So we do see that we we see that it’s able to do more the radar sensors.

But as you’re saying, there’s not that many vehicles that are equipped with it. Like right now, really the only vehicles in the U S market that have he’s been sensing capabilities are through Hyundai, Kia, and Genesis. And Kia and Hyundai primarily have the ultrasonic sensors. Genesis has the radar sensors.

And it’s not even in all the cars, right? So even for Hyundai and Kia. And I want to say Genesis. I would have to look and see for their 24 listings. What they have in their sedans, but you’ll get your basic door logic system and everything, but you might not, depending on the size of the vehicle, you may not get the motion detection.

You won’t get the occupant sensing aspect of it, and the automakers have their voluntary agreement, right? That by model year 25, they’re going to have something. They’re going to have a motion detection. Rear occupant alert system. But the threshold is very low. Right? The threshold is really, yeah, it’s

Michael: gonna be door sequencing, right?

Right. Yeah.

Dr. Emily Thomas: The threshold is essentially door sequencing. Now, it does not lay that out that it has to be door sequencing, nor does it prohibit them from doing something more. But if you look at the Nitsa docket to see the submissions from the manufacturers in the past two years, um, Nisa has been creating a docket for them to submit a report of.

What percentage of their fleet is complying with this agreement to just track the progress. And you’ll see that most of them have put in a door logic type system, right? It’s this end of trip reminder. And I did a recent tally for our purposes to understand, when I look at the.

When I look at the models that we have on our website and I cross reference that with. The safer car database, and I cross reference that with the docket to see what vehicles or which vehicles come, which models come with a rear occupant alert for model year 23. I have approximately 66 percent of models, and that’s 3.

That’s what the total number of 310 models that I’m looking at. So 66 percent of them, which is not looking at sales volume, right? Or market share. Versus just looking at. The models that are available. Yep, makes the models.

Anthony: And does this come standard?

Dr. Emily Thomas: Most of them come standard. If the certainly for the DoraLogic systems for this end of trip reminder, predominantly they come standard.

There’s a few that are optional. It’s very limited, though. And sometimes it has to do with, it’s a manual transmission or it’s a very low trim line that they perhaps don’t get a lot of volume, but for the most part it is standard. For occupant sensing it could be standard or optional and because it’s so limited in our fleet, like in our U.

S. market, we’re still awarding points, even if you have the system as optional, because we just want to incentivize them to keep putting it in, right? If you’re doing it. Any which way right now, we’re like, okay we’ll give you the credit for it. We recently updated our rating scheme so that for the end of trip reminders, in order for you to get credit for it, you had to have it as standard equipment on your vehicle.

And you had to have the system factory enabled. So what I mean by that is when the consumer gets the car, the system has to be turned on. They should not have to go into the settings and turn it on. Because like we were talking about earlier, nobody thinks this can happen to them. Why would you take a proactive step for a preventative measure that you think you’re never going to need, right?

And, oftentimes, they don’t know that their car comes with it, because it’s not like It’s not typically on the window sticker.

Michael: There’s so many features in cars now. It’s buried in the end.

Dr. Emily Thomas: It’s always buried. It’s somewhere that you’re not going to expect to look for. It’s in like convenience or door settings.

It’s not. It’s not intuitive at all for consumers to find it. So unless the system is factory enabled, so that when the consumer gets it’s already on, we’re not giving you credit for having the presence of that system anymore.

Anthony: Do these systems allow you to disable it?

Dr. Emily Thomas: Yes. So you can disable them. Some of them, you can disable it just for that ignition cycle.

So for instance, let’s say you opened up the back door to put your backpack down, right? And some of the systems will tell you, Oh, this has been activated and you can dismiss it at that point. But it’s really just for that ignition cycle. Ford allows for you to disable the end of trip reminder.

But when you do that, it tells you in 6 months. The car is going to remind you that you have the system and ask you if you would like to re enable it. And I really like that. I like because, you might buy a car and then you’re not in that life stage where you’re going to need a backseat reminder.

Right? But things change. You might become a grandparent.

Anthony: People are always forgetting ice cream back there. That’s what we got to focus on and that’s going to melt. It’s going to be bad. So I just have two quick questions for you. So where does Consumer Reports get babies for testing? And not just a weight sensor?

Cause I imagine the tinfoil crowd would be like, Oh, I can’t have middle meter wave affecting my taxes. Cause my car is, it’s not fancy, but it has weight sensors be like, Hey, there’s somebody back here, but they got to put on a seatbelt. So that seems simple.

Dr. Emily Thomas: Yeah first question. We do the testing mostly with with my kids.

It’s all in our temperature controlled environment at the main shop. So don’t try this at home, folks. But yeah, my kids are aging out. So part of the challenge with having a a good surrogate, right, is that because this area is so new, there’s new types of technology that are being used, right? We don’t, it’s hard to build a surrogate that you can use that will be all encompassing of.

All the technological solutions. And right now, yes, people are using ultrasonic sensors, and they’re using, radar sensors. But if they start to use CO2 sensors, or they start to use something else, right? We need to make sure that we have a good understanding as to what is out there in order to have a surrogate that can adequately test.

So right now we are using living beings. But also because,

Fred: How much do your kids get paid for that?

Dr. Emily Thomas: They get paid. Is it going to pay

Fred: for college or where are we headed here?

Anthony: Fred’s looking for some extra income.

Dr. Emily Thomas: They get

Anthony: lunch. Yeah,

Dr. Emily Thomas: they get lunch. They get to walk around and see all the test cards.

That’s usually what makes them happy. But yeah, so the systems right now they don’t necessarily differentiate between a child’s heart rate versus an adult heart rate, at least the ones that are currently implemented in vehicles. There are systems out there that can do that, but they’re not in production cars yet.

We don’t even necessarily have to use a kid at this moment, like I can sit in the backseat and it will detect me because it’s just, it’s looking for those micro emotions, but it’s not necessarily looking for a specific heart rate, like what you were describing before,

Michael: and I think that’s important because you have.

Although this does affect predominantly young children, you will also see cases where there are older children, and certainly not beyond the realm of possibility of it happening with adults who are developmentally disabled or have other issues that prevent them from exiting the rear. Right.

Dr. Emily Thomas: Yeah.

And there has. I know from looking at knowheatstroke. org that there have been a few cases of older kids that fall into that boat of, developmental disabilities that, they’re like the outlier cases. But when you read into them, there’s an underlying reason for why that occurred.

Fred: Have a question. You talked about a door lock sequencing system. How does that work?

Dr. Emily Thomas: The door logic.

Fred: Yeah. How does that work?

Dr. Emily Thomas: So it’s just looking to see whether or not the rear door was opened either just before turning on the car. So usually most vehicle manufacturers use like a 10 minute threshold.

So within 10 minutes of turning on the car on or once you’ve turned on the car. So that’s what initiates the rear occupant alert.

Fred: Okay. So it’ll assume that if the car, if the back door has been opened for any reason, that there is a potentially somebody sitting back there. Yeah, and then on the other end of it, how does that work?

If you turn off the car, do you then have to open the door? Do you open the door before you turn off the car? Or how does that work?

Dr. Emily Thomas: If you. You mean if you were to turn off the car during the trip? To get gas or something? Is that kind of the scenario? Yeah, you run into the Piggly

Fred: Wiggly to pick up some peanuts or something and, you get back in the car.

Does that neutralize the system or do you have to reopen the back door?

Dr. Emily Thomas: For some of them, yes, it does. For some of them, the depending on how quickly you’re getting back in and out of the car and turning the car back on it might still be within their window that it’ll recognize it.

And so you might still be okay, but a lot of them, you do have to like, reinitiate the sequence, right? Because it cycles off with every ignition cycle.

Michael: And that’s problematic because, these, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, when they have a voluntary commitment program like this, it should, it sets off alarm bells in our mind, and it should in most everyone’s mind, that they’re trying to head off a more comprehensive regulatory solution.

They want to be able to say, well, we’ve already done this. There’s no need for the government to require us to do more. And what you end up with is this kind of situation where you’ve got these door logic. Systems that are far less than perfect, and they’re not required to operate in a particular manner.

Every company can do its own thing, and what you end up with is a mess. You don’t have any assurance that the systems are going to be effective.

Dr. Emily Thomas: Yeah, and that’s largely why we started evaluating the systems. And right, we’re not We are not evaluating them in a regulatory manner, so we’re not saying you must be able to detect X number of beats per minute, or this CO2 level, or, this frequency of motion, whatever it may be.

Ours is more from the consumer standpoint of, is it going to remind me at the end of the trip? Does it do so in more than one modality? If I do a school drop off in the middle of my drive where, a rear door opens and closes during the trip because I dropped off my older kid, but now I still have a younger kid in the back, when I end the trip, am I still going to get that reminder?

Are there false positives? If I exit the vehicle, if I turn off the car and exit the vehicle, but then I don’t access the rear seat. Well, I get some sort of like audible external alert to jog my memory or make me look back at the car and then perhaps go check the backseat and then moving into the occupant sensing.

Does it detect large motions to detect small motion like small physiological motions? Is it giving me an external alert? If it’s going to give me a telematics message, is that subscription free? Is the notification defaulted to on? So that again, I don’t have to go in and turn on this setting. It’s a safety message, so it should be defaulted on, but is it?

And do I have to pay now for my safety messages? Those are the types of things that we’re looking at, and we’re trying to keep them accountable with. And over time, as we see the market change, as we see like most of them are meeting. The end of trip or end of trip reminders. We’re going to want to shift the weight of our rating towards the occupant sensing to now spur them on there.

So that’s like what we’re going to be able to do, and we’re not looking at a regulatory way, but ideally there will be a regulation coming. I do want to circle back to Anthony’s second question, which I remember part of, but if you can say it again, yeah,

Anthony: why not just use a weight sensor,

Dr. Emily Thomas: right? The weight sensors.

So the challenge with the weight sensors, right? And this is the challenge that they have even with seatbelt reminders, is that you’re typically going to have a child that’s in a child restraint. And so the weight of the child restraint on that weight sensor could turn into a false positive situation, right?

It’s always detecting the child restraint, whether or not there’s a child inside. And so you would always get that reminder. There was an early study done by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia where they looked at a bunch of these aftermarket types of systems, and that was one of the, one of the limitations that they found, right, is that those pressure mats or the weight sensors, because these are typically children that are in child restraints, you’re, the system’s always going to detect the child restraint, and unless it can like, raise calibrates to that and then see if there’s additional weight added on it’s going to always tell you to check the backseat, right?

Anthony: And then you’re going to get back the seats out and upgrade them new ones without Cheerios and I’m with Cheerios.

Dr. Emily Thomas: Yeah. So there are significant limitations to using a weight sensor.

Anthony: That makes sense.

Dr. Emily Thomas: And sorry, one more thing I would also say. So the weight sensor would account.

Again, if it could zero out for the weight of the child restraint, which there’s so many different weights, right? You really once you’re really happy one. So that’s another engineering challenge right there, but that would really only account for the instances in which. A child is sitting in their child restraint.

Now, what do you do with, maybe they’re in the car, but they’re not in the restraint. They’re playing in the footwell. They’re playing in the cargo area, right? The limitation of it being to that specific seating location now eliminates some of the other scenarios that we know are common with how these tragedies occur.

Anthony: Well, I think that’s a perfect segue to the next topic is child seat child car seats. Because if I’m correct, you’re also an expert on this, right? Yeah. Okay. Cause back in my day, we would just sit in the child, in the footwell or in the way, way back of a station wagon or right on daddy’s lap as he had a beer.

Okay. There was no seatbelts and now these, they’re just too coddled. But serious question is a lot of new cars actually come with two seats. Child safety seats already built into them to some extent. No, I thought I’m, I remember seeing something, I think it was even in my car was like, Oh, you can just lower this and a strap a child in somehow.

And again, my kid’s 19 and he wouldn’t sit still. It was awkward.

Dr. Emily Thomas: There are some Volvo’s. That have built in child restraints, but that’s the only one that I can think of and even then it’s an option like it’s an optional package, right? You don’t, everyone doesn’t get that and we don’t currently have one so I haven’t seen a recent one to be able to tell you how well they do for fit or anything like that.

Anthony: Okay, so how do parents do this? How do they find a kid? Child’s car seat, because like you mentioned, there’s all different weights, there’s, I’ve seen, it’s absurd, it is too many options, too many choices, at that point, you’re like, can we just get rid of the kid? We, just duct tape him.

Dr. Emily Thomas: You’re right, there are a lot of options, and it is pretty overwhelming. There. So from the Consumer Reports standpoint, right, I can brag on what we have available to people. And last fall, we launched our new babies page. And so from there, you have access to tons of advice and product ratings, all for parents, because we know it’s a very overwhelming time.

We know there’s a lot of decisions to be made. But for us, the really big exciting news that came with that is that our car seat ratings are now free, so anybody can access our car seat ratings. When looking for child car seats, right, our ratings focus on ease of use, so your ability to make the various adjustments.

Cleaning, doing all the different things you have to do for it. Crash bubble adjustments, harness adjustments we look also at what we call our fit to vehicle program. So we have five test cars that every child seat in our program gets rated into. And so we install every seat into these five test cars for every unique seating position, every orientation of the car seat.

So if it’s a rear facing seat we’re forward facing. If it can do both, we’ll do both types of installation and for every installation method. So we’ll do a seatbelt installs, we’ll do lower anchor installations. And so for the a hundred plus car seats that we have in our ratings, that amounts to a minimum of about 5, 000 car seat installations.

And that is again, the minimum, because oftentimes we’ll do multiple installs for the same seating position to see can we get it a little bit better or, we’ll do a kind of a trial by jury have somebody else try it out. See, is it really that hard? Or is it really that easy? And we’re looking at how secure can you get that installation?

Do you have to, remove the head restraint? Do you have to do any trips? Ticks are. Sorry, tips or tricks to be able to get that secure install. And there is a subjective portion of it that is, how much effort is needed. So how many extra tries do you need to do?

Is this harder than other seats that we’re looking at? And then lastly, we look at crash protection, and our test goes beyond the federal standard. So we test at a higher energy pulse 35 Gs, 35 miles per hour, and this is because the government test is meant to determine the minimum level of safety. So every car seat that’s sold in the United States has to meet The federal standard, right?

They have to meet that minimum level of safety. So you know that when you go and purchase something from the shelf it’s certified to that minimum level of safety. But how do you know how one seat rates against its peer? And in order to be able to differentiate them, we have to test at a higher energy pulse than what the government standard is.

We also use a more representative rear seat environment in our testing. So we use a real vehicle seat. That was determined to have average geometry, average stiffness to the current fleet and we use a simulated front seat back. And so what this allows for us to do is in the rear facing configurations, we can test for that head contact inter interaction between a rear facing child and the front seat back.

For forward facing tests, it allows for that organic kind of lower extremity interaction that’s likely going to happen with the front seat back. And how does that impact the rest of the The the body’s dynamics. So these things allow for us to have a test that goes beyond the federal standard. And we rate our seats based on basic, better, or best.

What additional margins of safety are you gaining when you look at the seat compared to its peer group? So our statistical analysis looks at the peer group for that seat. So we won’t rate an infant seat against a convertible, we’ll only rate them against other infant seats. All of that said, We still weight ease of use and fit to vehicle higher than crash protection because our philosophy is that if you can’t use the seat properly every single time, and if you can’t get a secure installation in your car, you’re not going to see the optimal crash protection that we see in the lab.

Right? In the laboratory, we’re doing everything exactly right. Right? We’re all certified child passengers safety technicians, we’re installing the seat correctly, everything is nice and tight and snug, and it’s this, one event, crash and patch, whereas in the real world, we know that Most crashes are multiple events, so everything is very cookie cutter and perfect.

But in the real world, that’s not the case, so we actually weight our crash protection score lower than ease of use in a vehicle because of that. But all this comes together so that you are able to Compare seats against each other and determine what’s the best one for you. We also now have an infant car seat finder quiz available for free for people that are looking to purchase an infant seat.

And it takes into account things like your lifestyle, the size of your vehicle whether or not you want a lifeboat. Lightweight seat, your budget and helps to narrow down the choices based off of your needs and give you, options that better suit you that make it a little bit less overwhelming.

Fred: Emily, I’ve got to, I’ve got to tell you that my infant grandsons, twin grandsons were locked into their car seats in the back of backseat of a car. That was then rammed in the back by a car. They were stopped. They were rammed by a car estimated speed of 60 miles an hour. My kids were protected the no harm to the kids.

Thank you very much for doing all the work that you do. It means a lot.

Dr. Emily Thomas: Thank you. That’s awesome. I’m so glad to hear that. That’s the thing car seats work, and. They can be really daunting and people will stress out because they’re not sure if they got it quite right or there’s a lot of information to know.

And that’s really why we do our ratings program and that’s also why you can find a child passenger safety technician near you. If you go to NHTSA. gov, right, and you can search to find an inspection station near you or a tech near you so that you can have somebody help you out. And there’s no shame in that.

Until you start having kids and you have to put it in a car seat, you’re not going to know these things. And it’s important to make sure that you get it right, because the best car seat for your child, as you’ll hear any tech tell you, is the one that fits your child, fits your car every single time.

Right, so that one that you can use properly every single time, it has a nice secure installation, and your child fits in it, so the appropriate size for your child. You can look at our car seat ratings to find, help you determine that. And then on the flip side, in our vehicle program, we have our rear seat safety ratings.

So that’s looking at how well is your vehicle equipped for children, for rear seat occupants. Earlier you were saying that, the focus on the back seat has mostly been on kids, right? And we haven’t paid much attention. Back there, because for the longest time, you were in the backseat, you were inherently safer, right, and that safety gap has been closing because we’ve put so much emphasis and added so much technology to the front seat, and rightfully because there was a lot of fatality and injury that was happening there.

But now that gap is closing and we need to really be paying attention to the backseat you have. You don’t just have kids in car seats back there anymore, right? We have kids up until the age of 13, at least, sitting in the backseats that are now using this, the vehicle seatbelts. We have multi generational families and so you might have mom or grandpa or grandma or an older sibling or somebody else back there that’s not in a car seat.

We’re doing more rideshare. We’re doing more rideshare. How many people get into the front seat of their rideshare? They’re getting into the back. It’s important that regardless of where you’re sitting in a vehicle, you have the most amount of crash safety available to you, right? It should not just be a luxury for front seat occupants.

So our rear seat safety ratings look at child safety, but then we also look at rear occupant protection. So in the child safety score, we are looking at child seat fit. So we take three car seats. Install them into every test car in the back seats, every unique seating position. We focus on seatbelt installs because the IHS Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, they do their latch evaluation of cars, which has really improved lower anchor and top tether accessibility and access accessibility, like the labeling, all of that.

But we also know that those lower anchors have a weight limit, right? You can’t use anything more than 65 pounds with a lower anchor install. And that’s the weight of your child plus the weight of your car seat. And as car seats get heavier, you have to switch to that seatbelt install. As your child grows, you have to switch to that seatbelt install.

And not every rear seating position is equipped with lower anchors. So we make sure in our program that we are doing seatbelt installs, and that’s where we weight it more heavily. So we do a child seat fit. We look at booster fit. So how easy is it for that booster to be compatible with the vehicle seat?

Do you have to remove the head restraint? We hate when we have to remove head restraints to get that boost, high back booster to sit flush against the vehicle seat back. Because that means that either they’re throwing it into the back of the car and it’s now a projectile, right? Or they’ve thrown it somewhere into their garage, never to be found again.

And now you’re no longer having a kid or a high back booster in that seating position. You have an adult there, but they don’t have this really important piece of head protection for, whiplash protection. And so now it’s unsafe for another occupant to be using that seating position. So we don’t like to see that.

We look to make sure that the kids are able to access the buckles easily. They’re able to buckle themselves. And then we look at rear occupant alerts. So our evaluation that we discussed earlier about the rear occupant alerts goes into our child safety score. On the rear occupant protection side, we’re looking at rear belt liners.

So we evaluate vehicles to have a buckle up reminder and an unbuckled alert. It’s not helpful to have an unbuckled alert if they are never buckled up to begin with. So we tried to make sure that we’re encouraging manufacturers to implement really robust buckle up reminders. So at the start of the trip, it tells you that you need to put your seatbelt on and it Doesn’t stop telling you until you do.

Michael: These are the infamous rear seat belt reminders that we’ve been trying to get Nitsa to get a good standard on for many years now. Right.

Dr. Emily Thomas: We also look at head restraint height to make sure that every seating position has an adequate head restraint at 29 and a half like it says in the standard. But the standard really only applies to outboard seating positions.

So oftentimes in the center seat, you’ll see that you have You Head restraints that are lower or in some vehicles, there’s no head restraint at all. And then lastly, we could look at advanced restraint systems. This is more of a presence and absence of features evaluation. Everything else that we do has a performance component to it, but for advanced restraints, consumer reports does not do crash testing for vehicles.

So we’re really looking to see, though, do vehicles have advanced seatbelt technologies, pretensioners, low limiters in their back seats? Do they have side torso airbags? And as we’re checking off, Whether or not they have it, the systems. The IHS program now, the Updated Moderate Overlap Test that has a rear seated dummy, is really looking at the effectiveness of these systems.

So how well are the manufacturers fine tuning and implementing these systems? Are we seeing it in the dummy injury metrics? So the two programs are really working in complement to advance backseat safety for everybody.

Anthony: Give me a second. That’s a lot to digest. So we’re going to link to the child’s car seat ratings.

I was looking at the find the perfect infant car seat. Very cool. I’m unfortunately, Fred doesn’t believe me, but I’m actually slightly too big to fit in one. So through the child’s car seats, what’s the one where you guys have come across and now this is for people who don’t like their children.

This is so bad. If there’s got to be at least one really. Oh boy.

Michael: I’m like, I’m guessing there’s some boosters that might fit in that category because there’ve been some really weird boosters on the market in the last decade or so.

Dr. Emily Thomas: Yeah, I don’t necessarily want to call out

Michael: the ratings are right there for everyone.

Okay. I

Dr. Emily Thomas: did want to mention with your seat safety that if you go to the vehicle model page on consumer reports that org and you scroll down to the ratings and specs and the driver assists section and crash protection section. The rear seat ratings are actually free. Even if you don’t have a subscription to consumer reports, you would still be able to look at our rear seat safety scores for every vehicle that we have

Michael: yeah, I think that’s really awesome that y’all are making that available to everyone because it was, it’s a gap.

If you go to NITSA’s, There’s a lot of great information for parents, but what they don’t really get into are crash ratings and comparisons, which are really important to people. And the Consumer Reports site allows parents to focus in more on the type of seat they want and compare those.

Whereas, so it’s super helpful for new parents and grandparents.

Anthony: So I’ve gone through this, I’ve found the perfect car seat, I’ve installed it, I think my job is done, and now the car seat’s recalled. How do I, as a consumer, find out that this thing that I went through the IKEA manual and invented new curse words and installed and my kid’s safe, how do I find out that it’s been recalled?

Dr. Emily Thomas: It’s really important to register your car seat. Every car seat that you purchase will come with a registration card. Mail it in. Oftentimes they have the website or a QR code now even available for you to be able to just go to the website and register your car seat. It’s super important to do because this is how you get notified about recalls.

You can also use the safer car. App and you can put in the car seat information that you have. The manufacturing sticker on the seat itself will tell you the manufacturer, the model name and the model, sorry, model number as well as date of manufacture. And so you can put that information in and it’ll save it to your profile.

And then if any recalls come for that seat, you’ll get a notification through the app. So that’s been a great way for me to keep track of like our cars as well as our car seats at home. But I strongly encourage people register your car seats. It’s super important. This is how you find out if there is a safety issue.

And. If there’s a recall, I know people automatically get mad and freak out about it being like, Oh, my gosh, I did all this work to find something safe. And now it’s not safe. Here’s what we say. Our philosophy is that recalls are a good thing.

Michael: Yes.

Dr. Emily Thomas: This means that a safety problem like was identified.

And now they’re doing something about it. Right. And so you want to know so that you can know how to fix it. You can know what you’re supposed to do next. And, we encourage people, don’t just stop using your car seat and don’t use a car seat at all as a result of a recall, right?

Contact the manufacturer, speak to them, find out what your options are. There might be a fix that they’re going to send to you or there’s some other remedy that’s in play. Or you get a brand

Michael: new car seat

Dr. Emily Thomas: or you get a brand new car seat. Exactly. So contact the manufacturer, have the information with you from the manufacturing sticker, because that’s the stuff they’re going to want to know whether or not your seat is part of the recall.

And it’s important to make sure that your child is restrained for every single car ride, regardless of where you’re going, how close by it is and whether or not you’re a safe driver, because that is what’s going to keep them safe.

Anthony: Excellent. Good to hear. And I’m bummed that we can no longer keep kids in the foot well.

It worked fine for me. Sure, I can smell colors now, but whatever.

Dr. Emily Thomas: That might be a different problem.

Anthony: That could probably be. There’s a long list. Oh, please. Hey, Emily, thank you so much for joining us. This has been incredible. incredibly insightful. This is a lot more. I had no idea about any of these sensors for checking.

People left in the car behind. That’s fascinating. And we have a link to it as well. The no heat shrink website, no heat stroke website. And it’s fascinating. You can see the data over half of the Children left behind or just people forgot Which is just, surprising. It’s exactly what you’re talking about.

Whereas your brain goes into automatic mode and you forgot. Oh, well, I’ve done that with ice cream and it’s really sad. With a child, it’s got to be worse.

Dr. Emily Thomas: Yeah. I think the important messaging is that it really can happen to anybody. And as a parent, as a caregiver, you’re trying to do your best and everyone understands that, which is why it’s important to just acknowledged that we’re human and we’re fallible from the start and put systems in place to help us out.

Right? Like I’m terrible at taking my vitamins. If I don’t put a reminder on my phone, I will never take my vitamins and they helped me a lot. So in a similar fashion, there Are things that you can do even if you don’t have access to these systems in your car or in your car seat, right? You can set up an agreement with your partner or your child care provider so that if your child doesn’t arrive by a certain time, right, they check in with you to make sure that, hey, is everything okay?

Are they staying home today? You can make a habit of always putting something of yours in the back seat. Whenever you use your car, so that even when your child’s not with you, it just becomes part of your routine, and then when your child is with you, your brain already does it, put something of your child’s in the front with you so that at the end of the trip, you have that visual trigger that will remind you, hey, Don’t forget, they’re back there.

Right? Because we’re not doing it out of, people aren’t doing it out of malice. These are really tragic situations that are occurring. And in the cases where, they might be intentionally left behind, it’s often because people aren’t aware of how dangerous it is. Right? They think that, oh, I’m going to be gone just for a real quick second.

I just need to grab the milk. But then the next thing you know, your quick second has turned into many minutes. And now the vehicle environment has become unsafe. Never leave a child unattended in a vehicle. When you’re at home, always keep your cars locked. Even if you don’t have kids, be a good neighbor.

Keep your cars locked so that no other child can access the vehicle. Keep your keys out of reach from little hands. These are all things that we can be doing to really just make it safer for kids everywhere.

Fred: Thank you so much, Emily. I appreciate your accepting our invitation. We love Consumable Reports.

You do an incredibly important work. Thank you. And we encourage everybody to go to, is it consumablereports. org?

Dr. Emily Thomas: Yes, it

Fred: is. And sign up and get their information sent to your house every day, every hour. How often? But thank you again for joining us. I don’t think there’s a physical magazine

Anthony: still, is there?

Dr. Emily Thomas: There is, you can’t get the magazine. Yes, there

Anthony: is. Because I’m a subscriber, I don’t get a physical, I only have online access. Yeah, you’re a digital subscriber.

Fred: Step up, buddy.

Anthony: My favorite part of Consumer Reports was always the back page where they list out the mistakes done in ads. So much fun. But yes, thank you

Dr. Emily Thomas: can up your membership to also get the magazine,

Anthony: I could. I could.

Dr. Emily Thomas: Thank you guys so much for having me. I really appreciate the invitation.

Anthony: Yeah, thanks so much. We got time for one more thing. And, I’m flipping a coin in my head. Do we do recalls? Do we do distracted driving? Or do we do self driving? Come on, anyone?

Anyone? You pick Anthony.

Dr. Emily Thomas: Those are a bit out of my wheelhouse. I will tell you.


I’m probably not the person you want for any of those topics. ,

Anthony: they’re literally only gonna last five minutes. Let’s do NITSA released a a campaign. They released data about distracted driving.

In 2022, 3,308 people were killed and an estimated additional 289,310 people were injured in crashes involving distracted driving. And when we had on the sheriff from Massachusetts, I asked him, I said, who’s the most dangerous driver on the road, drunk drivers or teenage drivers? And he said, texting drivers.

And this kind of backs this up. So my, my question is, I see cops in my neighborhood driving all the time. Playing on their phone. Do I stop and wave a little wag the finger at them? What do you think I should do?

Michael: No, we’ve already talked to you about what your communications with other drivers. That

Fred: was one time.

You got to be careful of those famous hand gestures, Anthony.

Anthony: No, I’m just wagging the index finger, like

Fred: sometimes can be misunderstood, I think.

Michael: My, my takeaway from Nitze’s look at distracted driving is that I think the numbers they come up with seem to be Low compared to what I see on the roads.

There’s, they’ve used a combination of observational studies, which come in very low. That when they’re basically setting up a team to watch drivers on the road, they’re coming up with figures under 10 percent of drivers are using phones or operating and.

With the distractions involved and You know if the if you look at this the fatality studies I believe the latest report that nitsa put out this week said they’ve you know, they’ve found there were about 368 fatalities due to cell phone distractions and vehicles in 2022 Was the most recent year they had data for And that seems incredibly low to me.

And I think it is because all of that fatality data is derived from police reports and states. are all over the map when it comes to reporting on distraction. There are all sorts of different fields in state crash reports. Some states don’t have a lot of fields available to record information on whether a driver’s distracted.

I think the numbers could be a lot higher and, um, it’s an area where NHTSA doesn’t have the authority to directly regulate cell phones. They can only regulate, in vehicle technology and some aftermarket stuff meant for the vehicle. But when it comes to a consumer device like a cell phone, they don’t have the authority to force Samsung and Apple to put in systems that are going to prevent drivers from doing things like watching videos or playing games or scrolling through Facebook on their drive.

It’s an area where, enforcement has, plays a role and we’re communicating with consumers and educating them about the dangers of distraction play a role. But ultimately, we’re still seeing a lot of manufacturers put distractions into the vehicles. We’re still seeing problems with touch screens.

So there’s a lot, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. On distraction to bring those even the low numbers that NITS is reporting, even to bring those down. I think there’s a long way to go. That’s

Dr. Emily Thomas: What I was going to bring up. Yes, cell phones are distracting. But I’m sure that our usability testers would tell you that the in vehicle electronics.

Are also a big component of that. We have CarPlay, we have Android Auto, but the implementation or how they integrate it and really how to be able to do anything else in the car, simple tasks can be very distracting just because of how they. Put it into the infotainment system. You can have systems that are really simple and then you can have ones that require you to go into many different menus to, turn off your fan or something really basic.

It’s just, there’s a lot of things and to your point, observational studies do, they’re helpful, right? Because we need the data and we need real world data. So that’s. a mechanism of getting it. However, Because it’s a small sampling, compared to the large population and you do statistical gymnastics to get a, a representative number it does tend to be an underreporting and, to Mrs.

Credit they’re trying to give us something to work with some evidence backed data to be able to be like, Hey, look, it’s a problem.

Michael: Yeah, I worry about that. Whether they’re under, Kind of underselling the problem by reporting that data because you see surveys where when they’re when people are self reporting their behavior, you see really high numbers of people that are using phones while driving, 40 50 percent and then the observational studies show, under 10 percent which is a huge gap

Dr. Emily Thomas: probably depends to right?

I’m surprised that self reporting is that high. I feel like it’s the other way around. People don’t typically want to admit that they’re doing something wrong in a survey. Even in a survey. So that can be a challenge.

Anthony: That could be people saying oh, I was using Google Maps. They weren’t like, Right,

Dr. Emily Thomas: exactly.

So that could also be it. They’re like, oh, well, technically I’m using my phone. But really it was like on my CarPlay or something like that. Right? So it also depends on how the question is asked, I think. Yeah. Overall you’re on point. Distraction is a huge issue, and There’s lots that can be done, needs to be done to improve it.

I thought you were going to say that the highest group of distracted drivers was parents.

Anthony: No! I thought that’s where you were going. in the back seat. That’s what it is. In that distracted driving,

Michael: in the distracted driving study that NHTSA just put out, if you look at the age groups, the worst age group from distraction are not the 15 to 20 year olds or the 21 to 24 year olds.

It is the 25 34 year old age group and even the 35 to 44 age group is higher than the teens and the younger 20s, which was surprising to me. And it says that maybe the old folks need to get their act together.

Dr. Emily Thomas: I can’t tell you the number of times my children are asking me about something that I’m like, I cannot see what it is.

I cannot, I can’t drive

Anthony: to me constantly. I’ll be driving and she’ll be like, look at this. And I’m like, do you want to die? Yeah, let’s test the airbags today. Let’s do that.

nothing: Yeah.

Anthony: I think this is a good place to end. Don’t drive distracted. Get off your phone. If you’re driving through Connecticut, calm down go to consumer reports, get a good car seat, contact NHTSA, tell them, Hey, we appreciate you do better.

And with that, we’d like to thank Dr. Emily Thomas from consumer reports again. Thank you so much for coming by.

Dr. Emily Thomas: Thank you so

Fred: much for having me. all for listening. Bye bye.

Michael: For

Fred: more information, visit www. autosafety. org.