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Government test aims to make car seats safer for young children

Long-awaited proposal evens the side-impact playing field

Published: January 23, 2014 12:15 PM

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Thanks to proposed enhancements to existing law, all child seats may soon be tested the same way for side-impact protection, providing a valuable resource for parents. Currently, nearly all child seats make some claims of side-impact protection, but they are tested differently by each manufacturer, preventing consumers from accurately comparing performance.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has announced that it will be releasing its proposed upgrades to the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213, which regulates the performance standards for child restraints. The standard will now include a standard test for side-impact performance that simulates a crash where a vehicle traveling at 30 mph “T-bones” a vehicle moving forward at 15 mph. NHTSA says this speed represents more than 90 percent of side-impact crashes in the real world. These tests will be required for all child seats designed to accommodate children up to 40 lbs. Currently the standard only includes tests for a seat’s performance in a frontal crash.

The performance will be based on each seat’s ability to limit head contact with the vehicle’s interior and to reduce forces from the crash affecting a child’s head and chest. The test setup includes a barrier that simulates the vehicle’s intruding door and it mimics appropriate crash forces. Those two elements are the major causes of injury and death for children in side-impact crashes. The agency estimates that once in place, the standardized test will prevent five deaths and 64 injuries each year.

The proposed test is a long time in coming. The length of time to develop the test has been attributed to NHTSA’s desire to get the testing right, as a side-impact crash is a difficult test to simulate.

Currently, the phrase “side-impact protection” may mean anything from a high level of performance in an extensive dynamic side-impact test program to the addition of foam in the area around the head. The new test will assure that all child seats will meet at least some minimum level of performance in the same test.

One concern is that the rulemaking only applies to seats designed for children up to 40 lbs. Though all rear-facing-only infant seats will be included by the 40 lb. limit, most forward-facing seats are designed for heavier children, meaning that they won’t be subject to the regulation.

The development of the 3-year-old dummy used in the testing was major factor in creating the new test. Our hope is that NHTSA is starting here and that work is continuing to certify a larger side-impact child dummy that will allow testing to extend to seats designed for children weighing more than 40 lbs.

We applaud NHTSA for crafting the details of this test. The proposal has a 90-day comment period, and it will, hopefully, lead to standardized tests and improved, safer products for parents and caregivers. Once this becomes law, we anticipate including aspects of side-impact testing in our child-seat crash-protection evaluations.

Jen Stockburger

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