by Patricia Callahan, ProPublica
Members of Congress today are introducing a law that would establish the most sweeping safety rules for booster seats in more than two decades after determining that the makers of the car seats misled parents about their risks and endangered children’s lives.
The new legislation, called the Booster Seat Safety Act, was prompted by a ProPublica investigation last year. The act’s chief sponsors — Reps. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., and Katie Porter, D-Calif. — say it will address gaping holes in federal regulations that have allowed booster seat manufacturers to make up their own side-impact crash tests and decide what passes.
“We as parents always assume that no company would make a product that was unsafe for our children and that the government would regulate this space carefully, and unfortunately we’re wrong,” said Krishnamoorthi, who credited ProPublica with bringing the safety problems to his attention. “That’s why we introduced the legislation we did.”
The proposed law would force the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to create mandatory tests for booster seats that mimic the forces of side-impact crashes. Currently, boosters only have to undergo crash tests that simulate a head-on collision. While frontal crashes are more common, side-impact collisions have higher rates of injury, in part because there’s only a door separating the child from the intruding vehicle. Auto crashes remain a leading cause of death among children.
For the first time, boosters would have to carry a prominent label warning that they should not be used for children who weigh less than 40 pounds or who are less than 4 years old. The law also would require labels on traditional car seats with built-in harnesses, warning parents not to transition their kids to boosters until they outgrow the harnessed seats. Boosters save lives by lifting children up so that adult seat belts fit properly. The built-in harnesses on traditional car seats are better at protecting a child’s body in a crash.
In February 2020, ProPublica revealed that Evenflo, a top maker of children’s car seats, marketed its bestselling Big Kid booster seat as “side-impact tested” even though the company’s own crash tests showed children could be paralyzed or killed in such crashes. ProPublica obtained years of Evenflo’s testing videos, thousands of pages of sworn depositions by company employees, and internal company documents that, before then, had largely been shielded by court secrecy orders.
Those records showed that under rules Evenflo set for its side-impact tests, the only way for a booster seat to fail was if the child-sized dummy was thrown onto the floor or the seat broke into pieces. Tests Evenflo gave passing grades included those that showed child-sized dummies slipping from their shoulder belts and flailing far outside the seat in ways an Evenflo engineer admitted could result in catastrophic head, neck, or spinal injuries — or death.
Internal company records revealed that an Evenflo marketing executive in 2012 vetoed a company engineer’s recommendation to stop marketing boosters to children as light as 30 pounds since those kids would be safer in traditional car seats that have harnessed to hold their small bodies in place. ProPublica showed that children who weighed less than 40 pounds and were seated in Big Kid boosters had suffered grave injuries, including what medical experts describe as “internal decapitation,” in side-impact crashes.
An Evenflo executive could not be reached by publication time. But previously an attorney for Evenflo has said the company’s booster seats are safe and effective and that Evenflo has been a pioneer in side-impact testing. She blamed driver error for the children’s injuries. The company subsequently raised the minimum weight for its boosters to 40 pounds.
Evenflo was able to invent its own side-impact test because NHTSA failed to enact safety rules for these tests even though Congress directed it to do so more than two decades ago.
The new Booster Seat Safety Act is far more direct than the law Congress passed in 2000 and does not offer NHTSA room for delays. For years, efforts to design side-impact tests bogged down amid industry lobbying, outdated technology, and the lack of detailed data on accidents involving kids.
The new bill has the support of the American Academy of Pediatrics, prominent auto insurers, insurance industry groups, and more than 10 consumer safety organizations.
Outraged by the ProPublica report, Krishnamoorthi and Porter last year asked the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy to investigate. The results of that congressional investigation not only echoed ProPublica’s findings about Evenflo but also determined that the problems extended across the industry. Many booster seat makers, congressional investigators found, misled consumers with “meaningless safety testing.” Testing records of other manufacturers’ seats showed child-sized dummies being thrown from their shoulder belts or the dummies’ heads slamming into doors in ways that could kill or severely injure a child.
“If you look at these videos, you can clearly tell that although some manufacturers continue to give themselves passing grades for these side-impact tests, no child would survive those particular crash tests unharmed,” Krishnamoorthi said. He added, “Side-impact testing is a joke at this point.”
He and Porter last year repeatedly prodded NHTSA to come up with meaningful side-impact tests for boosters, to no avail. After decades of delays, NHTSA last November proposed raising the minimum weight for boosters to 40 pounds, but it also announced that it planned to exclude boosters from the side-impact tests it was proposing for other children’s car seats.
The congressional investigators’ report lambasted NHTSA for failing to regulate the safety of booster seats in any meaningful way.
Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, called the Booster Seat Safety Act “a very significant step forward” and said it was unfortunate that NHTSA didn’t address the problems with booster seats long before this.
“Sometimes that’s Congress’ role to say, ‘Not good enough. We need more,’” Levine said.
A spokesperson for NHTSA said the agency does not comment on pending legislation.
The new law would require NHTSA to design tests that mirror the forces of a car crashing into a vehicle where the child in the booster is seated near the collision and a separate test where the child is seated on the opposite side of the car. Each poses different risks for a child’s body. In a near-side collision, a child can be injured by the intruding vehicle. In a far-side crash, children can slip from the vehicle’s shoulder belt and suffer spinal injuries or knock their heads on something in the car.
NHTSA data shows that crashes on the side farther from a child account for 40% of deaths and 30% of serious injuries of kids in boosters and harnessed seats, Krishnamoorthi and Porter noted in a letter to NHTSA last year. The agency’s proposed side-impact standard for harnessed seats only simulates the forces of a near-side collision. The bill would force NHTSA to come up with far-side crash tests not just for boosters but for harnessed seats, too.
The law would require NHTSA to establish minimum height requirements for children seated in boosters.
The act also tells NHTSA to issue guidelines for a crash-test dummy that responds like a 6-year-old child’s body would in a side-impact crash. In explaining its inaction in the past, NHTSA has pointed to the lack of an approved side-impact dummy that represents kids over 40 pounds as part of the reason it hasn’t proposed such tests for boosters.
But the proposed law makes it clear that NHTSA shouldn’t wait for a perfect dummy before creating side-impact tests for boosters. Instead, the agency is supposed to use the most appropriate dummy available at the time.
Dr. Ben Hoffman, an Oregon pediatrician and a lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ policy statement on car seats, supports developing a state-of-the-art crash test dummy, but he said regulators can’t let that time-consuming work hold up side-impact tests.
“Let’s work with what we have,” he said. “We’ve been waiting 20 years for a side-impact standard, so pushing that to completion is going to be huge. We can’t afford to wait another 20 years.”
This article was first published on ProPublica.org.