High-Tech Child Car Seats: Innovation for Safer Rides
Manufacturers Exceed Safety Standards To Protect Passengers
First, the not-so-great news: Three out of four child car seats in the U.S. are installed incorrectly, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Nonetheless, most parents of young children know that a car seat is a must and accident statistics reflect it. From 1999-2008, the number of kids younger than 15 who died in motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. declined by 45 percent, according to a recent child passenger safety technical report in the medical journal Pediatrics.
"Car seats are one of the biggest success stories we have in auto safety because even with the levels of misuse we know that happens, they're incredibly effective at reducing injuries and fatalities to children," says Kristy Arbogast, Ph.D., engineering core director for the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She leads multiple projects on motor vehicle injuries and children, including a focus on abdominal injury biomechanics.
In fact, child safety seats reduce the risk of death in passenger cars by 71 and 54 percent for infants and toddlers, respectively. Booster seats for 4- to 7-year-olds reduce injury risk by 59 percent compared to seatbelts alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Still, there's potentially room for improvement. Car seats are required to meet federal motor vehicle seat safety Standard No. 213, which is designed to help protect a child in the event of a head-on collision, the most common type of crash. No car seat safety standard exists yet to protect children in a side-impact accident, although NHTSA is in the process of developing one. Side-impact collisions happen less often than frontal collisions but they have the highest injury and fatality rate for children, Arbogast says.
Child safety seat manufacturers, meanwhile, are going above the current car seat standard to develop even safer seats. Here are three high-tech child car seats with the latest side-impact safety innovations to protect the youngest passengers.
Cybex Aton 2
- Rear-facing infant seat
- For infants 4-35 pounds (preferably until age 2), up to 30 inches tall
This German-engineered rear-facing-only infant car safety seat is the first to offer the linear side-impact protection (LSP) system, which is designed to absorb more of the energy of a side-impact collision. The innovation "doesn't look like much," says Elisabeth Bergöouml;, a child passenger safety technician with Regal + Lager, the seat's U.S. distributor. It's a small plastic wing on both sides of the car seat.
To engage the LSP system, you simply flip out the wing on the side of the car seat near the car door after clicking the car seat into its base. (You don't need to use the LSP system if you install the car seat in the rear center spot, which is the safest car seat position.) The plastic wing helps transfer the energy of a crash into the shell of the car seat so a child isn't jostled around as much. Safety testing by the manufacturer found the LSP system increases safety by 40 percent in a side-impact collision.
The Cybex Aton 2 also features a load leg, which is commonly found in European car seats. The leg, which extends from the car seat base to the floor of the car, affixes the car seat base for added stability in a frontal crash. An added bonus: The seat itself is lightweight, weighing just 9 pounds because the release mechanism, which typically adds heft to a car seat, is in the base that's attached to the vehicle seat, not the car seat itself.
Safety 1st Advance 70 Air
- Convertible car seat
- Rear-facing 5-40 pounds (preferably until age 2)
- Forward-facing 22-70 pounds
The Safety 1st Advance 70 Air convertible car seat offers advanced side-impact protection using the company's G-Cell HX and Air Protect technologies. G-Cell HX is specialized rebounding foam with hexagonal shapes that lines the entire car seat shell. Safety 1st developed G-Cell HX with Bald Spot Sports, a company that uses solid G-Cell foam in customized cockpits for Indianapolis 500 professional racecar drivers.
"G-Cell HX absorbs energy as it makes contact with the occupant to mitigate crash forces much like a bumper does on cars," says David Amirault, director of product marketing, design and brand management for Dorel Juvenile Group (DJG), the Safety 1st manufacturer, in Columbus, Indiana. Air Protect is impact foam in the seat's headrest with an air chamber that dissipates the energy of a crash away from a child, Amirault says.
DJG has tested the Advance 70 Air with its own side-impact sled tests. "We've seen sizable improvement in the dissipated energy," Amirault says. DJG is also working with Kettering University in Flint, Michigan, to develop a side-impact test that it hopes NHTSA will adopt as a safety standard for all car seats sold in the U.S.
In addition to the Safety 1st Advanced 70 convertible car seat, DJG plans to use G-Cell HX and Air Protect in more of its car seats down the road. To spot these seats in stores, look for a tag with a big orange plus, which indicates the car seat features both Air Protect and G-Cell HX.
Britax Advance 70-G3
- Convertible car seat
- Rear-facing 5-40 pounds (until age 2)
- Forward-facing 1 year and 20 pounds, up to 70 pounds
The Britax Advance 70-G3 features Harness Ultra-Guard System (HUGS) chest pads with SafeCell technology to provide a secure cocoon. The chest pads are foam structures designed to compress in a crash and offer resistance to reduce a child's forward movement and risk of head injury.
"Crashes are violent things and many of the injuries we're concerned about are due to body parts hitting vehicle interiors," Arbogast says. "To the degree a manufacturer can design a restraint system, particularly for the head, which stops the head from hitting things, is a good thing," she says.
At $379, the Britax Advance 70-G3 is at the top of the car seat price range. If that's beyond your car safety seat budget and you want to stick with Britax, simply buy a less advanced seat. All Britax car seats, including models that start at $199.99, feature side-impact cushion technology, which is energy-absorbing foam, as well as integrated steel bars in the car seat frame, which reduces forward flexing of the seat during a crash, says Britax product manager Joyce Kara.
In general, extra safety features like enhanced foam padding or a load leg can increase the price of a car seat, and that worries Arbogast.
"We know car seats are effective the way they are. We don't want to make them so advanced that their price is out of range for the average consumer," she says.
To keep your child safe in a crash, a basic $50 car seat will do the job. Don't feel you must pay more to buy a safe seat.
"Just because company A puts advanced foam in their car seat and says their seat offers advanced side-impact protection, doesn't mean that company B's seat is worse," Arbogast says. "We don't have a standardized way of assessing it."
Even though manufacturers cite their own testing, the jury will be out until NHTSA establishes a safety standard. Then again, if you can afford a car seat with the latest safety innovations, why not?
"I think I would," Arbogast says.
To make sure any child car seat is a good fit for your vehicle, take a store's floor model out to your car for a trial installation. Check to see that you can easily access the safety harness buttons and that the bottom of the car seat doesn't extend beyond the backseat cushion. To install the car seat correctly at home, read the instruction manual and watch the installation video if one is available on the manufacturer's Web site. Double-check your work by getting your child's car seat inspected by a certified car seat safety technician. Check NHTSA's child car seat inspection station locator to find a car seat inspection station in your area.