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How we test child car seats

Helping parents choose the safest and best seat for their child

Published: April 2014

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A child seat is among the most important purchases parents need to for their new baby, and Consumer Reports has long been the go-to place for advice and information on which ones are right for your child and your vehicle. For decades, Consumer Reports has been working to make car seats and the marketplace safer for transporting children in order to help reduce fatalities on the roads. And now, we have made meaningful improvements to our evaluations to further help parents and caregivers with this important decision.  

Below are details on a new crash test we’ve developed and the rigorous testing methods we use on each and every seat.

Then and now

Child car seats have come a long way since Consumer Reports first crash-tested them for the August 1972 issue of Consumer Reports magazine, when we rated 12 out of 15 of them as Not Acceptable. Between 1972 and 1977, child seats were tested four times, which made Consumer Reports the only publication at the time that regularly crash-tested these seats and reported the results to both consumers and the government. The day after the organization released its 1974 report, the government proposed a stronger child-restraint standard. As of January 1, 1981, all manufacturers of child seats had to certify that their seats passed a dynamic crash test in compliance with government safety standards.

Consumer Reports continues its efforts to improve the marketplace and has developed a new test protocol for crash-testing child seats. As part of a rigorous, two and a half year process to develop the new test, we extensively studied published research on pediatric biomechanics and child-injury patterns in vehicle crashes. We also analyzed crash-test videos and data from crashes conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Transport Canada, and where appropriate, we conferred with other child passenger safety and automotive safety experts. We also reviewed our protocol with Dr. Priya Prasad, an outside consultant who is a respected expert in vehicle safety and injury biomechanics, with 40 years of experience.

As part of our mission, we are always looking to improve the way we serve consumers by conducting research and developing testing that help them make better choices. As an independent, non-profit consumer group that accepts neither advertising nor corporate donations, Consumer Reports uses that research to provide consumers with real-world experience and expert advice, free of outside influences. We also purchase the seats we test from retail markets, just as consumers do, rather than accepting free samples from manufacturers. That way we ensure that we’re testing the same products consumers get when they purchase them.

Our latest infant seat ratings are based on tests conducted according to our new crash protocol at a contracted outside lab.  We also performed in-house testing of both ease-of-use and fit-to-vehicle assessments on each seat. We combined the results of those three tests to determine the overall rating for each car seat, giving more weight to the combined scores of the ease-of-use and fit-to-vehicle testing than to the crash performance testing because optimal crash protection cannot be expected without proper use and secure installation.

The crash test

Consumer Reports has for many years performed our own simulated 30 mph frontal crash testing based on the criteria outlined in Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213 (FVMSS 213), which is NHTSA’s standard for crash performance of child restraints (child car seats). Child seat manufacturers self certify that they have complied with this standard.

Consumer Reports wanted to provide additional consumer service by developing its own test protocol that would provide consumers with comparative information on a car seat’s potential for offering an extra margin of safety in certain crash conditions simulated by our new tests. We evaluated the seats’ performance on a scale that ranks seats from those that had the least potential to offer that extra margin (“basic”) to seats that had the most potential (“best”). Our focus on extra margin is due to the fact that any car seat sold in the U.S. already must provide an essential level of safety under the government standards it must meet.

To create our new test, Consumer Reports considered real-world vehicle conditions and increased the speed of the simulated frontal impact test from 30 mph to 35 mph. Our new test also includes installing the child seat on a test “bench” that uses the cushions and hardware from an actual vehicle seat and also incorporates a surface to simulate the front seatback, something present in all vehicles. Research shows that when children get injured in frontal crashes, it is most often because they have hit their heads on something in the vehicle, such as the back of the front seat. The simulated seatback allows for that interaction.

Our Crash Protection ratings are based on injury criteria measured on (a) standardized child-size dummies generally used in this type of simulated crash testing, (b) direct contact of the dummy’s head with the simulated seatback and (c) a seat’s ability to remain intact during the course of testing.

Here are more details on the three major changes that we made to our prior infant car seat crash test protocol in order to make our evaluation:

Introduction of new seat benches

We measured the seat cushion length, cushion angle, and seatback angle in cars from Consumer Reports’ auto test fleet for model years 2008-2010. We found that the rear seat of the 2010-2011 Ford Flex second row was a good representation of an “average” seat across our fleet.

For cushion stiffness, we used NHTSA’s rear seat study of various cars from model years 2003-2007 and performed stiffness testing on the second row Ford Flex seat to see how it compared with the data from NHTSA’s study. This is a key change since the current federal test, and our own prior infant car seat tests, use a cushion that is softer than the seats in most current model vehicles.  However, our test experience leads us to believe that that the stiffness and geometry of the vehicle seat on which the child car seat is installed can affect the performance of the child seats.

Added front seatback

We added a surface that simulates the front seatback to more closely represent an actual vehicle environment. We simulated the seatback by designing a “blocker” that had a representative stiffness and geometry of front passenger seatbacks in contemporary vehicles. To determine the stiffness of our blocker plate, we selected six front passenger seats from our own fleet of cars to analyze through impact testing. Each seatback was chosen because it was from a typical family car, such as a 2011 Honda Accord and a 2011 Ford Explorer.  Collectively, these six represented a variety of seatback stiffness found in actual vehicles--some with soft foam and some with hard plastic. That data was used to determine the stiffness of the “blocker” we designed and used in our new infant car seat testing.

Our experts also analyzed the seatback movement in videos of 35 mph vehicle front crashes conducted by NHTSA and Transport Canada in which forward-facing and rear-facing car seats were installed.  That enabled us to determine the appropriate angle of the seatback “blocker” we used during testing. Based on our analysis, we estimated that the seatback can move 4 to 5 inches in a 35 mph crash before the child restraint (car seat) comes in contact with it, so we adjusted the angle of the blocker plate to represent this movement.

Increased speed

We also increased the speed for our tests from 30 mph to 35 mph for the simulated frontal crash tests. Based on a study of over 1,200 contemporary vehicle crash tests, we were able to better approximate the characteristics of actual vehicle crashes for our new tests.

Ease of use

In addition to the outside lab crash testing, our certified child passenger safety technicians evaluate how easy the seats are to use. (We have seven certified technicians on staff.) This is an important part of our testing, as ease of use and understanding the directions help consumers properly install the seats in their own vehicles.

We look at the following for our evaluation:

  • Product labels and instructions (including the availability of Spanish-language instructions).
  • Seat weight (weight of the product).
  • Assembly, if applicable. (Most infant seats required assembly of the sunshade canopies only.)
  • Harness height adjustment.
  • Harness tension adjustment.
  • Crotch-strap adjustment, if applicable.
  • Chest clip.
  • Buckle closure.
  • Rear-facing-installation features and use with LATCH and vehicle safety belts using the base.
  • Rear-facing-installation features and use with vehicle safety belts, without using the base.
  • Rear-facing model level indicators.
  • Ease of attaching the carrier to the base.
  • Care and cleaning of the seat.

Fit to vehicle

The last piece of every seat rating includes how well a seat fits in a variety of vehicles. We install all of the car seats in each unique rear seating position of five different vehicle types. These vehicles also include features that may make child seat installation a challenge based on our vehicle assessments. Our technicians follow the manufacturers’ instructions carefully and make judgments based on how securely each seat could be installed.

Through this rigorous testing, each child seat is awarded an overall score based on a weighted combination all three of these components. See our car seat Ratings and buying advice to determine which seat is best for you.

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