In recent years, a growing number of car seat manufacturers have made claims about side-impact safety features in their products. Unfortunately, the car seat industry lacks a standard against which those claims can be evaluated. This leaves consumers confused and with little information to go on when deciding which seat to buy.  

To help address this confusion, in early 2014, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to include a standard test for side-impact protection. Before this rulemaking notice, car seats were regulated only for frontal-crash protection. Consumer Reports strongly supports this much-needed change.

In early 2015, Consumer Reports’ child passenger safety experts conducted feasibility tests on select infant seats, convertibles, and boosters in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the proposed rules. Those feasibility tests highlight issues with the proposed side-impact tests, particularly relating to the rear-facing-only—or infant—seats.

Currently, the only dummy approved and available for the side-impact injury measurement is a specialized side-impact dummy. This dummy, known as a Q3s dummy, is the size of an average 3-year-old child, not an infant, so even though its weight is appropriate for most infant seats, it is too tall to properly evaluate infant seats; as you can see in the photo above, the head is well above the side bolsters intended to protect it. Further, it is instrumentation in the dummy’s head that measures the injury potential of each tested seat.  

Child seats with labels indicating side-impact protection.
Child seats commonly claim they offer side-impact protection, but a new standard and independent testing are needed for a fair assessment.
Photo: Emily A. Mathews, Ph.D.

Because the dummy’s head extends far above the infant seats' shell, side-impact protection within the shell can’t be captured and accurately measured by the instruments built into its head. As a result, we are unable to properly evaluate the benefits of each infant seat’s features.

Our tests showed that when the dummy’s head extended beyond the shell portion of the infant seat, the injury data also tended to be lower—despite the greater injury risk. Therefore, based on this data, we concluded that side-impact protection on these seats might be overrated. This is because, while the design would not actually provide improved impact safety, the data would be skewed by allowing for greater head excursion outside of the shell.

Heavier dummies are often used to evaluate the structural integrity of car seats, rather than injury metrics. In fact, we use heavier dummies in our tests that might exceed the seats’ height but remain within the seats’ weight capacity. But after observing the proposed side-impact test, we foresee that the crash parameters likely won’t cause significant structural failure for infant seats, even if tested with the heavier Q3s dummy.

Given the dummy size and limited potential for structural failure, we conclude that the proposed side-impact test, using only the Q3s dummy, has little value for assessing side-impact protection in infant seats. For infant seat testing, an alternative, smaller side-impact instrumented dummy should be considered for approval: one that represents real-world usage and more accurately measures potential injuries and-side impact protection features.

The good news is the standard is still in the proposal stage and modifications can be made prior to it becoming a final governing standard for all child seat performance. As part of that process, we have formally shared our experience with the test and our concerns about it with NHTSA.

What Do These Proposed Changes Mean?

  • If possible, secure car seats in the middle position of the rear seat, which is likely the farthest from any side-impact intrusion.
  • Despite the lack of standardization, some side-impact technology is still better than none. For example, features such as side air pillows and head wing bolsters provide an extra layer of protection between your child’s head and your vehicle’s door, interior, or window, as well as the intruding hood from the vehicle impacting your car.

In the future, we will likely see government standards and independent testing to regulate and evaluate side-impact protection. Those changes will make it easier for you to compare the benefits these additional safety features provide.

Consumer Reports will continue to encourage and evaluate NHTSA’s efforts to regulate side-impact protection in car seats. For now, parents should use side-impact-protection claims as a way of narrowing down their choice of seats but primarily base their purchase decision on more defined criteria, such as the ability to achieve a secure installation and frontal-crash performance.