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Child Seats Given A's, Bs

In its first ratings of the car-safety devices, U.S. urges improvements even though federal standards are being met.

June 12, 2003|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The federal government issued its first ratings of car seats for children Wednesday and called for improvements in a life-saving product many parents have trouble installing correctly.

Only three models earned a straight-A grade in all five categories the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rates to judge convenience and ease of use. Two were Graco Comfort Sport models, and the other was an Evenflo Tribute.

"Our expectation is that all child-seat manufacturers will make A-rated seats before too long," said Jeffrey Runge, head of the agency. "Not only would we want parents to buy 'A' seats, we also want to drive manufacturers to make them."

Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for children after the first year of life. In 2001, nearly half of the 497 children under age 5 killed in crashes were not strapped into safety seats, or even into adult seat belts, federal statistics show.

Safety advocates say some parents give up on child seats because they are difficult to install, and many roadside checks have found that a lot of parents make mistakes installing them. "If you have a seat that is convenient to use, then you will be more likely to use it correctly," said Stephanie Tombrello of SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A. in Torrance, a safety advocacy group.

Even though a seat may be simple to use, test results released Wednesday by an insurance group indicate that many vehicles provide a poor fit. NHTSA said it will take a closer look at how automakers are complying with a federal mandate to make vehicles more accommodating. The agency recommends that parents test how a seat fits before they buy it.

NHTSA's ease-of-use ratings are part of a broader effort by the government to improve child safety seats. Federal regulators are also working to upgrade minimum government standards for child seats and to improve crash testing.

The agency's new rating system uses an overall letter grade of A, B or C for each seat, and individual grades in five sub-categories, such as ease of assembly and securing the child.

Out of 107 products judged for overall convenience, 39 earned A's, and 68 earned Bs. No seat got an overall rating of C. Some were rated more than once, because they can be used for infants and older children.

"While all seats meet federal standards, some are even better than the standard," said R. David Pittle, chief technical advisor for Consumer Reports, which independently tests child seats.

"As a consumer, why would I even want a seat with a grade of C in any of the sub-categories?" Pittle asked. "Things that look alike don't necessarily act alike."

Jennifer Szwalek, a spokeswoman for the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Assn., said child-seat makers are satisfied with the ratings system -- which she said would lead to design improvements.

For many years, child passenger safety had been a low priority for government regulators and automotive designers. It was chiefly seen as a parental responsibility, and states passed laws requiring small children to ride in child safety seats.

A spate of air-bag deaths in the late 1980s and early 1990s led to calls for changes in auto design. The chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board at the time publicly challenged the auto industry to make child safety a design priority.

When Firestone tire failures on Ford Explorers prompted a consumer outcry over auto safety in 2000, child advocates in Congress succeeded in attaching provisions for tougher federal standards for child seats to an NHTSA reform bill. The rating system announced Wednesday was part of that legislation.

In a related development, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said automakers have gotten mixed results in designing vehicles so child seats can be installed more securely and easily.

The government last year began requiring built-in anchors for child seats in the back seats of all new vehicles. But the insurance group found some anchors difficult to find or reach.

Of 10 new vehicles tested, the easiest fits for child seats were in the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, the Dodge Grand Caravan and the Toyota RAV4, the group said. But the Cadillac CTS and the Hyundai Santa Fe proved to be a challenge, it said.

At a news conference, the institute's Adrian Lund broke into a sweat demonstrating how to install a child seat in a seat taken from the Santa Fe. "We're not saying this problem is unique to Hyundai," he said "What we have is a situation that is much better than it was before. There are some lingering problems, but they are easily fixable."

The ratings are posted on the Internet at

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