What does car seat “side-impact protection” really mean?

Consumer Reports News: April 28, 2010 05:08 AM

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The recent release of Air Protect™ technology  from manufacturer Safety 1st may make parents wonder, what do side-impact protection claims by child car seat manufacturers such as Safety 1st, Britax, Recaro, and Graco really mean?

As car seats’ frontal crash protection improves, side-impact crash protection seems to be the next big area where child restraint designs can improve to better protect children in all types of crashes. This opportunity also makes for a key marketing opportunity for manufacturers, as side-impact protection becomes more important to parents and caregivers. (See our child car seats buying guide and Ratings.)

Current and perhaps familiar marketing strategies that tout a seat’s side-impact capability include Britax’s True Side Impact Protection; Recaro’s claims that their seats are side-impact tested at international laboratories; Graco’s claims of its seats being “side-impact tested”; and now Safety 1st’s new Air Protect system. But the truth is that the words can mean different things to different manufacturers, so the claims don’t necessarily show consumers how products would perform against one another. Current U.S. child car seat standards only include a frontal impact test. 

The benefits of child restraints at reducing death and injury for children is well documented (71% for infants younger than 1 year old and 54% for  children between 1 and 4 years of age), but there is still room for improvement in those numbers. And specific statistics on side-impact crashes are even less encouraging. Some data show that only 1 in 4 passenger vehicle crashes are side impacts, but they account for more injuries than frontal impact crashes.

According to data reported in the Child Passenger Safety Fact and Trend Report issued by the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm Insurance in 2007, side-impact crashes account for about one-quarter of all crashes (23.6 percent) but result in higher injury rates than frontal or rear impacts combined. Only rollover crashes produce more injury to children than side impacts.

It’s also more complicated to simulate side-impact crashes for testing purposes than frontal tests. That’s because side-impact crashes have the potential for injury not only from the forces exerted on occupants from the crash forces (such as whiplash, and other injuries), but from contact with the oncoming vehicle or interior surfaces of the vehicle cabin hitting the passenger.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been doing a great deal of research in the area of side-impact protection for children. But it will take some time to phase-in and implement. 

In the meantime:

  • Know that the manufacturers’ marketing claims for side-impact protection are not always comparable to each other, as each manufacturer may test differently. Also, know that those differences do not currently reflect a seat’s performance to a standardized test.
  • If possible, install your child’s car seat in the center rear seat position in the vehicle, which is considered the safest position, since it is furthest from potential impact sites. (For a child car seat installation site near you, go to NHTSA's database.)
  • Keep smaller children rear-facing as long as the weight and height limits of their rear-facing seat allow. Consumer Reports recommend keeping children rear-facing up to 23 months of age in both infant and convertible car seats, as research has shown that rear facing has a benefit in protecting children in side impacts as well as frontal impacts. 

—Jennifer Stockburger, vehicle and child safety program manager

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