Consumer Reports: sample report
  Safest car seats for kids

MOST ARE SAFER THAN EVER--IF THE SEAT FITS YOUR CHILD AND YOUR CAR AND YOU USE IT CORRECTLY.

A child car seat—any car seat—can greatly reduce the odds that your child will be injured in a crash. This is especially true now, with the increased use of tethers, straps that secure safety seats to anchors bolted into cars. Still, largely because of the way they're used, as many as eight out of ten safety seats may not adequately protect the children riding in them, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Protection can be compromised in several ways.

Parents use the wrong seat for their child's age, weight, and height, or for their car.

A seat isn't installed in the car correctly.

A child isn't properly secured in a seat

The design of a seat can also cause problems. Our tests showed, for example, that some seats used both for toddlers and older children have shoulder-belt guides that may allow slack in the belts, meaning that a child may not be sufficiently protected in a crash. (See Booster seats.)

In this report, we'll help you determine which type of car seat is right for your child at various ages, weights, and heights. We evaluated 33 safety seats, priced from $30 to $200, for ease of installation and use and for crash protection, based on crash tests simulating a frontal collision at 30 miles per hour. (See "The tests behind the Ratings" in the Ratings for details.) We tested four types of seats that cover children from newborn through grade school: infant seats, convertible seats for infants and toddlers, toddler/booster seats for toddlers and older children, and booster seats for older children. (See Types for photographs and details.)

Our tests showed that most of the infant, convertible, and booster seats should do a fine job of protecting your child. But several of the toddler/booster seats require special care in booster mode, and a few should be avoided in the booster mode because of design problems. (Model-specific advice is in the Ratings.)

In addition to helping you choose a seat, we'll help you use it safely (see Installation) and tell you where to get information online and where to go to have an expert inspect your handiwork.


Tethers and anchors can help

Tethers, now included on all front-facing convertible and toddler/booster seats, can greatly enhance crash protection. A tether--which hooks into an eye bolt in a car's rear deck, floor, roof, or seatback--helps stabilize the seat and reduces head movement in a crash. When we crash-tested convertible and toddler/booster car seats in front-facing position with and without a tether, all but one offered better protection with a tether.

Tethers have been phased in over the past two years. All new passenger vehicles except convertibles must now have tether anchors. You can use a new safety seat in an older car without attaching the tether, but if you do, be sure to stow the tether (especially when the seat is rear-facing) so that it doesn't fly loose in a collision and injure someone. You may be able to get a retrofit anchor from the automaker or the seat manufacturer. For a list of contacts, check www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/childps/toptether/a5.html.

Next year will see the widespread introduction of the LATCH system, short for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. This combines a top tether with lower anchors, sometimes called ISOFIX anchors, built into the rear seat of the car. LATCH-compatible child safety seats attach directly to the anchors. The combination of tethers and anchors eliminates the need to struggle with vehicle safety belts and should allow simpler, more secure seat installation.

This system will be mandatory on all vehicles, convertible seats, and toddler/booster seats manufactured on or after Sept. 1, 2002. Rear-facing-only seats will be required to have lower anchors only. Booster seats will not be required to have either a top tether or lower anchor. The Fisher-Price Safe Embrace II and the Cosco Triad, tested for this report, are already LATCH compatible, as are some model year 2000 and 2001 cars.

Here's a guide to what children need at various stages of life.


Newborn to 1-year-old

Use: Infant seat or convertible seat. Infants should ride in a semireclined, rear-facing position with full support of the head, neck, and back, until they are at least 1 year old and weigh at least 20 pounds. We recommend using a rear-facing seat as long as the baby fits in it (without exceeding the maximum weight limit for the seat) because that's the safest orientation in a frontal crash.

An infant seat can be used rear-facing only and generally holds babies weighing up to 20 or 22 pounds. Most double as carriers. (We tested them only as car seats. Some Evenflo Joyride seats were recalled for problems with the carrier-handle locks; see "Shop Smart" in the Ratings.) The seat snaps into a base strapped into the car. It can be used without the base, but then you have to reinstall it every time you use it as a carrier, or leave the seat in and take just the baby out

Many parents use the base because it's easy to snap the carrier in and out without disturbing the baby. But a seat without a base usually provides a bit better crash protection if it's installed properly.

We recommend: The top-rated Graco SnugRide, $80, which can hold a baby up to 20 pounds. The Cosco Designer 35, $70, has a weight limit of 35 pounds. Both performed well and were convenient to use.

Convertible seats are used rear-facing until a child is at least 1 year old, then forward-facing for toddlers. These seats don't have a separate base and can't double as infant carriers. However, they can hold larger babies who have outgrown an infant seat but can't yet use a forward-facing seat. With some models, you can keep children rear-facing until they weigh 30 or 35 pounds.

We recommend:There are many fine choices in this category. Especially noteworthy: the Fisher-Price Safe Embrace, $100, and the LATCH-compatible Fisher-Price Safe Embrace II, $160, and Cosco Triad, $95. At $50, the Cosco Touriva offers solid performance at a low price. (Fisher-Price recently stopped making car seats, but says current models should be available till year-end.)


Toddler, 20 to 40 pounds

Use: Convertible seat or toddler/booster seat with harness for a child at least 1 year old who weighs 20 pounds or more.

A convertible seat that was used rear-facing for your infant can be turned around and used front-facing for children over 1 year old, weighing 20 to 40 pounds or so.

We recommend: As noted, many of the better seats in this category are fine choices.

A toddler/booster seat can be used with its internal harness for a toddler weighing between 20 and 40 pounds, then converted to a booster seat for an older child.

We recommend: All the toddler/booster seats we tested performed well with their harness. If you plan to use the seat as a booster when your child is older, our top pick is the Fisher-Price Grow With Me, $100.


Child over 40 pounds

Use: Toddler/booster seat or regular booster seat with car's safety belt. Children between 40 and 80 or so pounds who aren't tall enough to fit an adult safety belt need a booster seat to position the belt correctly.

A toddler/booster seat can be converted to a booster seat by using the car's safety belt as the restraint. For kids weighing 40 to about 60 pounds, the belt is routed through a guide on the seat. With taller kids, the belt position should be fine without the guide.

We recommend: Of the toddler/booster seats tested, the Fisher-Price Grow With Me is our top pick as a booster. Its guide allowed the shoulder belt to operate correctly without special care, unlike those of other seats. (In 1999, we rated an earlier Cosco High Back Booster as Very Good. But our current tests showed that its guide can be problematic. Model-specific advice is in the Ratings. Also see Booster seats.)

Booster seats, sometimes called belt-positioning boosters, also use the car's safety belt to restrain a child weighing from 40 pounds to 80 pounds.

We recommend: All three booster seats we tested scored Excellent in crash tests. The Evenflo Right Fit, $30, is A CR Best Buy. Because it is backless, use it only in vehicles with seatbacks that support your child's head and neck. The Fisher-Price Safe Embrace, $60, or Britax Star Riser Comfy, $115, with backs, are better in cars with low seatbacks.

A separate device called a shoulder-belt adjuster is designed to keep the belt off an adult's neck. On a child, it can cause a lap belt to rest on the abdomen, creating a risk that the child will suffer internal injuries or "submarine"—slide out under the belt in a crash

Conclusion: Start with an infant seat for a newborn. If your baby outgrows it before age 1, use a convertible seat rear-facing, up to the seat's weight limit. Then turn it frontwards (after your child is age 1 and at least 20 pounds) until your toddler is about 40 pounds. Finally, use a booster seat until your child is tall enough to use the car's safety belts. Buying three seats instead of two may cost more, but it can pay off in protection and peace of mind.

Main report
Ratings
What to look for
Types
Booster seats
Installation


Copyright © 2001 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc.