A U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee’s investigation into the crash testing practices of six booster seat manufacturers revealed that the companies have been misleading consumers about the efficacy of their products for years off the back of meaningless safety claims.
The House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy published a report late last week detailing disturbing industry-wide practices after an investigation by non-profit news organization ProPublica into one child seat maker, Evenflo, earlier this year. It also formerly requested both federal highway safety regulators and the Federal Trade Commission investigate producers of child booster seats.
The subcommittee found that three of the manufacturers it investigated — Evenflo, Graco, and KidsEmbrace — market their booster seats as “side-impact tested,” even though there are no industry-wide side-impact test criteria overseen by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Thus, the companies have been free to invent their own criteria, which are conveniently made “nearly impossible to fail” in the subcommittee’s words:
Evenflo gives its booster seat a passing grade every time a child test dummy does not fully eject and the seat itself does not physically break apart. Graco’s self-designed standard also fails to test for occupant safety. Marketing booster seats as “side-impact tested,” under these circumstances misleads consumers into believing that the booster seats passed meaningful impact tests, which they did not. It appears from simulations with test dummies that side-impact collisions would result in severe injuries to children.
The report goes on to include photos of internal testing conducted by Evenflo and Graco, which shows dummies flailing and contorted in ways that could induce severe injury or death, but nevertheless constituted passing grades in both companies’ tests because the dummies still remained at least partially strapped into their seats at the conclusion of the test.
Five of the six booster seat makers in the subcommittee’s probe also recommended their products for children as light as 30 pounds, contradicting “...a decades-old expert consensus that booster seats are not safe for children under 40 pounds.” While Graco and Evenflo have reportedly adjusted their weight limits in response to the government’s investigation, three other manufacturers — Baby Trend, Artsana, and KidsEmbrace — still recommend booster seats for children that weigh too little to safely use them.
In one particularly alarming excerpt, the subcommittee describes that Evenflo’s products were recalled in Canada three times in 2006, 2008 and 2012, where it is illegal to market booster seats for children that weigh less than 40 pounds. Evenflo eventually adjusted its recommendations to comply with Canadian laws but refused to make the same change in the U.S. until this year, even at the urging of its top engineer, Eric Dahle, to do so sooner because the company stood to earn more from parents transitioning their toddlers to booster seats earlier than is deemed safe.
In [a 2012] email exchange with other Evenflo executives, Mr. Dahle stated that using different labeling and packaging for the same seats in U.S. and Canada would increase costs, with $30,000 going to “error proofing on the Big Kid Line to overcome the lack of harmonization.”
Gregg Greulich, then–Senior Director of Engineering & Program Management, suggested maintaining the 30-pound labeling in Canada, arguing that “$30k appears to be a poor investment for smaller volume in Canada.” After being informed that 30-pound labeling was not legal in Canada, Mr. Greulich asked, “Ok, what are $ impacts/risks if US increased to 40lbs?” McKay Featherstone, then–Vice President of Marketing and Product Development, interjected to make clear that a 40-pound recommendation for U.S seats was out of the question, asserting, “I have looked at 40 lbs for the US numerous times and will not approve this.”
The report goes onto describe other abhorrent examples of booster seat makers marketing safety features backed by no validation in testing, highlighting proprietary designs like Britax’s Side Impact Protection:
The following image from a side-impact simulation of Britax’s Frontier harness-to-booster combination seat, advertised with three layers of side impact protection, shows this purported “safety feature” in action. The child dummy’s head is violently slammed against the door of the car as the sled decelerates, and the dummy’s head is not protected by Britax’s proprietary technology.
Without regulations forcing these companies to do better, they’ve been able to skirt by making broad, baseless declarations of rigorous testing without consequence. Despite NHTSA’s own acknowledgment that children don’t belong in booster seats until they weigh at least 40 pounds, and despite Congress “urging side-impact testing standards for more than 20 years,” NHTSA seemingly allowed booster seat makers to endanger millions of children through its own inaction.
According to ProPublica, NHTSA proposed raising the minimum weight for booster seats to 40 pounds last month, but is still waffling on side-impact regulations:
On Friday, a NHTSA spokesman said that “issuing new side-impact performance standards for child restraint systems is a highly complex process” that involves “extensive development and testing” and an overhaul of many of its performance requirements. The agency has not approved a side-impact dummy that represents how a child over 40 pounds would move in such a crash.
“This process is necessary to ensure an objective and representative performance test, which will save more children’s lives,” the spokesman wrote. “NHTSA looks forward to publishing the final rule for side-impact standards soon.”
The administration actually proposed a side-impact test in 2014 at Congress’ urging but has still yet to enforce it. Issuing any side-impact performance standards at any point over the last two decades seems as though it would’ve been a good place to start, but sure — keep taking your time. It’s not like kids’ lives hang in the balance.