Investigative journalists at ProPublica came out with a story this week that we can’t get out of our mind, not the least because it featured a gif showing a child-size dummy being thrown sideways in an Evenflo Big Kid Booster seat over and over again. Before you let that sight haunt your dreams forever, we’d like to share some calm, actionable, expert advice about car seats and boosters.
The ProPublica piece focuses on internal documents from Evenflo that show how an engineer urged the company to inform parents that the Big Kid booster was safe for kids who weigh 40 lbs. or more — not the 30 lbs. shown on manuals and packaging at the time — but his suggestion was rejected by a marketing exec. The story then details one particular accident in which 5-year-old Jillian Brown, who weighed 37 lbs., was internally decapitated and paralyzed for life when her mother’s car was hit from the side. In addition to being marketed for children too small for it, it turns out the side-impact testing that Evenflo and other car-seat manufacturers tout on their products is completely self-regulated, and not necessarily something we can trust.
I’m sure I’m not the only parent who went into panic upon reading the story. Which is why I contacted pediatrician Dr. Alisa Baer, a.k.a. The Car Seat Lady, to explain what we should take away from it, other than nightmares. Her main fear after seeing the report is that parents will assume boosters are useless and do away with them altogether.
“What ProPublica did not show was what that same dummy would have looked like without the booster,” Baer told SheKnows. “Had they done that test, they would have found that the child was at increased risk for abdominal organ and lower spinal cord injury as the lap belt would have likely slid up over the child’s hip bones and put all the force of the crash into the soft belly and the lower spinal cord — a pattern of injuries known as ‘seat belt syndrome’ which can leave kids paralyzed and with massive abdominal organ injuries.”
A study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that in real-life accidents (not crash tests), children ages 4 to 8 using belt-positioning boosters were 45 percent less likely to sustain injuries than those who used seatbelts alone. That percent went up for near-side impacts (68 percent) and far-side impacts (82 percent).
But the ProPublica piece was definitely right about the fact that there’s no regulation when it comes to side-impact testing, and that the weight guidelines were misleading. So here are some top safety tips Baer shared for parents shopping for and using car seats and boosters.
1. Use those car seats properly.
“If you think you’re using your seat properly, humble yourself and realize that almost no one is and take a second look,” Baer said.
First of all, follow the AAP’s guidelines that say to keep your child in a rear-facing seat for as long as their weight and height allows (and don’t base it solely on age).
When you place the kid in there, make sure their straps are placed properly and tightly. First, with the chest clip out of the way, pull up on the shoulder straps to make sure there is no slack that was hiding in the legs or belly region. Then, verify it’s not too tight: If your finger fits under the strap at the collarbone, it’s not too tight. Last, verify that it’s not too loose: If you can pinch the strap over at the collarbone, or fit two fingers sticking out at the collarbone, it’s too loose. Last, slide the chest clip up to armpit level.
“Every parent tightens the straps and then the child says, ‘too tight!’ They’re almost never too tight,” Baer said. Instead of loosening the strap, let the child do the finger-fit test themselves. If they still complain, it’s time to give a non-sequitur question.
“So when the child says it’s too tight, you can say, ‘When we get to Johnny’s house, what do you want to do?'” she said. Don’t give in, and remain clear and consistent with them.
When you switch the seat to forward-facing, use the tether that secures the top of the seat. Many ignore that extra strap, but it’s crucial to protecting your child’s head and spine.
2. Don’t be misled by labels.
Take those “side impact tested” labels, for example: “You don’t know which side impact test the manufacturer used — it could be one they made up which doesn’t have any validation, it could be one that is used in another country. You don’t know how it performed. Just because it was tested, doesn’t mean it performs well [because] the manufacturers don’t release their crash tests.”
Baer also said there are no validated rollover tests, so for now, mentions of those may be pure marketing ploys.
But the real label you need to take with a grain of salt is anything on the seat that says when your child should switch from a five-point harness car seat.
3. Keep them in those car seats as long as possible.
Just to be clear: A car seat is any seat with a five-point harness. A booster is any seat in which the child wears the seatbelt across them as their restraint.
“The transition to a booster should happen ideally when the child maxes out their forward-facing harness,” Baer said. “But at the bare minimum, we want kids to be at least 5 years old, at least 40 pounds, and the most important thing is mature enough to sit properly in the booster during the trip. Because if they’re not sitting properly, then the belt is not in the proper place. And if it doesn’t start in the proper place, it does not magically end up in the proper place during a crash.”
4. Empower and distract.
If your kid is complaining about still being in a car seat or harness, let them feel a little more independent when they get in.
“Have the child climb in their own seat, do their buckles, and tighten their straps to the best of their ability,” Baer suggested. “The adult then comes by and ‘checks,’ which yes, usually means tightening the straps a little more.”
If the complaints continue, distract them with podcasts, toys or music.
5. Don’t mistake higher cost for higher safety standards.
“Price does not always translate into safety,” she said. Often the more expensive models of seats just use a different type of fabric.
I also wondered whether it makes more sense to buy European seats and boosters, since they have more regulations overseas than in the U.S., but Baer said that’s not necessarily the case. (Most of the European seat manufacturers make seats specifically for the U.S. anyway.)
6. Use the seats!
This sounds superfluous to say, but how often have you put your kid in a someone else’s car for a quick trip or taken them in a cab to the airport without a seat? Almost all of us do it at some point.
“Half of all the kids who die in car crashes in the U.S. are dying because they were not restrained in anything, not even a seatbelt at the time of their death,” Baer said.
If your child is of booster seat age, look into getting a narrow booster you can take with you on trips or use in friends’ cars.
Finally, if you think your child is ready to go without a booster altogether, check these guidelines on TheCarSeatLady.com. Better to have a kid who complains than none at all.