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What parents should know about new rules for car seats

Rick Newman
The Exchange
Source: Thinkstock

Nothing makes anxious parents whip out their checkbooks more quickly than hearing the words “children” and “safety” in the same sentence. Despite some changes coming to child car seats, however, most parents can hold onto their cash while perhaps making a few minor adjustments to the way they transport their kids.

The government is making two important changes regarding car-seat safety. First, it is issuing new guidelines  on how to install a car seat as growing children approach the upper weight limit for it. Second, it’s instituting a new side-impact crash test for child seats, similar to the crash tests done on cars themselves. For most parents, there’s no need to buy a new seat, though salespeople at children’s stores or confused parents might try to convince you otherwise.

The new guidelines apply to the weight threshold for using the so-called LATCH system involving anchors built into the bottom of a car’s rear seat and tethers that are part of the child seat. Those anchors have been required on cars since 2002, and safety advocates tend to think they offer a better fit than seat belts, which don’t always mesh well with the dozens of different car seats on the market. Proper fit is extremely important with car seats, since up to 75% of kids ride in a seat that’s not installed correctly, which can compromise protection during a crash.

Beginning in February, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will require labels on new car seats explaining that the LATCH system should only be used when the combined weight of the child and seat is 65 pounds or less. Above 65 pounds, the seat can still be used, but it should be installed using the seat belt as an anchor rather than the LATCH system. There’s no change to guidelines for using the upper anchor that’s built into most cars, on the rear side of the seatback, so parents should continue to use that in addition to the seat belt.

Chubbier kids, larger seats

NHTSA is clarifying this weight standard because new data suggest lower anchors alone may not effectively restrain a car seat above the 65-pound threshold. Why now? Because car seats have been getting heavier, as parents pony up for more padding and other features, and keep kids in car seats longer, requiring larger seats. Babies, for better or worse, have also been getting a bit plumper. So overall, more kids are riding around in a setup that exceeds the 65-pound weight limit.

The new guideline doesn’t require any changes to the way seats are constructed, which is why there’s no need for parents to buy a new seat. What parents should do is keep track of the combined weight of their kids and the seats they ride in, and make the switch to seat-belt installation once the total tops 65 pounds. It’s also fine to switch to seat belts below that weight, as long as you can get a snug fit.

The new crash tests are meant to add a further measure of safety to car seats, though it could be three or four years before anything actually changes. NHTSA already conducts front-impact tests on car seats, so the new test will add another minimum standard car seats will have to meet.

It’s important for parents to know there’s no perceived safety shortcoming with car seats, as there is sometimes when the government proposes new safety tests for various devices. In fact, NHTSA says car seats on the market today are “highly effective in reducing the likelihood of death or serious injury in motor vehicle crashes.” The new tests will generate data on how seats perform in a “T-bone” crash, when one vehicle strikes another in the side.

Modest changes

NHTSA anticipates any design changes required to meet the new crash-test standards will be modest, such as some additional padding or wider side “wings” that can absorb a bit more energy. The estimated cost of complying with the new standard — which NHTSA estimates will prevent 5 deaths and 64 injuries per year — is just 50 cents per car seat. Before starting the tests, NHTSA must still compile feedback from manufacturers, safety advocates and other members of the public. And once the tests are underway, manufacturers will still have three years to comply with any new standards. So the tests may not require any changes to car seats until 2017 or later, although some manufacturers may comply sooner.

In the meantime, it’s probably not a good idea for parents to try to fortify car seats against side-impact crashes on their own, since home remedies are rarely advisable with something as complex as auto safety. Far more important is making sure your kids’ car seats are properly installed, so they can work as intended if there is a collision. NHTSA and private organizations such as Consumer Reports provide thorough guidelines for proper installation on the Web. NHTSA also offers a free app for the iPhone (but not yet for Android) with info on car seats and other safety issues, handy for using when you’re actually wrestling with belts and latches in the car itself. Local police departments will often lend a hand or check that you've done it right. Then, once you get that sucker strapped in (the seat, not the baby), relax.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.