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Consumer Reports recommends replacing older Cosco Highback child car seats

Published: February 2012

Consumer Reports says parents who are using a Cosco Highback child car seat manufactured earlier than May 18, 2011, should consider replacing it, based on evidence from our tests that showed some older units can crack in simulated frontal-impact crash tests.

The potential problem appeared only when the Cosco Highback–a $40 to $55 combination toddler/booster seat–was used with its harness as a forward-facing toddler seat for children, not when it was tested as a booster seat for larger children.

We shared our results with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the agency that oversees child restraints. Even with the cracking we observed, we believe the car seat would meet federal safety standards.

A spokeswoman for Dorel Juvenile Group USA, which manufactures the Cosco Highback, defended the seat. “These seats do their job and protect child passengers,” said Julie Vallese, vice president for public affairs and strategic communications. Vallese said the company has sold millions of units of the Cosco Highback, which is designed for use with its harness as a toddler seat for children weighing 22 to 40 pounds, and as a booster seat for those from 40 to 80 pounds.

Neither NHTSA nor Dorel has received reports of injuries or fatalities involving this seat that are associated with the specific issue our tests uncovered.

Nevertheless, Consumer Reports believes parents who own the seat should determine its manufacture date (which can be found on a label on the seat, as shown in the photo below) and replace it if the date is earlier than May 18, 2011.

“This is not the first time that our view on safety has differed from that of a manufacturer or the government,” said Jennifer Stockburger, program manager for vehicle and child safety at the not-for-profit testing and consumer advocacy organization. “While this seat is certified to meet federal standards, our tests lead us to worry that it may deliver a lower margin of safety than other seats we tested. We think parents should know about our concern so that they can make a fully informed judgment.”

In its tests, Consumer Reports ran the Cosco Highback, as well as other combination toddler/booster seats, through simulated 30-mph frontal-impact collisions using child-sized test dummies on seats installed on a movable sled that simulates the dynamics of a crash. The work was performed at an outside lab that also tests for NHTSA and many child seat manufacturers. We also invited an independent child seat testing expert to review our results and observe the final round of testing. (Click here for complete test details.)

Of the dozen Cosco Highback units we crash tested, six emerged showing signs of stress in the area where the seat’s harness adjuster attaches to the plastic shell between the child’s legs. Three of them–including the one pictured below–had cracks severe enough to allow the harness to loosen, and the dummy’s head to move farther forward than it might otherwise have moved during the simulated collision–although neither the cracking nor the head movement would have violated federal safety standards.

“Our main concern was the fact that the harness loosened,” Stockburger said. “A loose harness might not effectively restrain a child if a secondary crash or rollover occurred following an initial frontal impact.”

Critically, all six of the seats with stress or damage in the harness adjuster area bore manufacture dates of March 12, 2010. But there was no similar damage to the same area in any of the other six Cosco Highback models, all of which had production dates of May 18, 2011, or later, nor to the three competitive toddler/booster models we tested.

In trying to understand the difference in results, our engineers noted that the Highback units with later manufacture dates seemed to have thicker plastic and other changes in the adjuster area (see comparative photos below).

We asked Dorel exactly when and why these changes were made. Vallese said that "various modifications have been made to the [Cosco Highback] over the years in the normal course of business and product development." She offered a list of such changes–including some to the center front adjuster area and some to other parts of the seat–that did not include specific dates or detailed reasons for each.

Dorel engineers who were invited to Consumer Reports to examine the results and samples from our first two rounds of testing pointed out that our test videos show differences in the positioning of the dummy and the child seat during various test runs. “Considering that the testing protocol that was used is questionable, that the dummies in the seats were clearly not installed properly, your concern [over] the safety of the seat really should be questioned,” said Vallese. She said Dorel has not seen such issues “under normal testing.”

Stockburger responds that such positioning differences are normal for child-seat installation, both in the lab and in real life. “Even though we take measures to ensure seats and dummies are installed as consistently as possible, some minor variation can and does occur,” she says. “We believe parents have a right to expect that seats will be engineered with enough margin of safety to accommodate some variation in installation and a child's position.”

The independent testing expert also observed the variations in our testing but said such differences usually do not produce big changes in structural performance.

Based on our results, we continue to believe that Cosco Highback seats manufactured on or after May 18, 2011 are safe to use. However, for seats manufactured earlier, we suggest owners who wish to err on the side of caution should replace them with a later version of the Cosco Highback or with an alternative model. Good alternatives include the Safety 1st Vantage, also by Dorel, or the Graco Nautilus 3-in-1. Both were top performers in our tests. (Consumer Reports online subscribers can find complete car seat ratings here).

Stockburger emphasized that owners who wish to switch should still use the existing seat until they have a replacement. And parents should not move from harness mode to booster-seat mode prematurely, she said, since children are better protected by a five-point harness than by the three-point car seatbelt used to restrain children in booster mode. Cosco says your child must weigh at least 40 lbs before switching to the Highback’s booster mode.

Consumer Reports is urging Dorel to provide a replacement seat to owners of pre-May 18, 2011 Cosco Highback models who request one, but the manufacturer has not agreed to do so.

   

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