The Alpha Omega Elite. Utter those words to any Child Passenger Safety technician and then just wait for the sigh of frustration and the exasperated look on their face. Something about like this:
First, a disclaimer: when used properly, the Alpha Omega Elite is absolutely just as safe as any other car seat. The key to that statement is “used properly,” and in this post we’re about to explore some of the reasons why this seat is difficult to use properly and why it elicits that exasperated sigh from CPSTs every time it shows up at a checkpoint.
Let’s go over the stats for this particular seat. For this post, I’m using the Safety 1st Alpha Omega Elite:
Rear facing using 5 point harness: 5-35 lbs, 19-36″
Forward facing using 5 point harness: 22-40 lbs, 34-43″, over one year old
Belt positioning booster using vehicle lap/shoulder belt: 40-100 lbs, 43-52″ and over 1 year old
Expiration life: 10 years (seats made after Dec 2013)
As the name “Alpha Omega” suggests, this seat is marketed as the only one you’ll ever need, it’s three car seats in one! Sounds great, right? Spend $100 once, and you’ll never have to buy a car seat again! Unfortunately, that’s just not the case. First, I tried my 1 month old daughter in the seat. She weighs nine pounds and is twenty two inches long, well within the specifications for rear facing.
Installed in my vehicle with the recline level line for her age level to the ground, this infant headrest significantly pushed her head forward, which could cause a serious breathing issue for a baby her age. Equally important, is that when I secured her in the seat, her shoulders don’t yet meet the bottom harness position.
In this close up view, you can see there is still about an inch of space between her shoulders and the lowest harness position. Page twelve of the instruction manual states for the rear facing position, “harness guide must be even with or just below the shoulders. If the harness is above the child’s shoulders with the headrest in the lowest position, do not use this child restraint. Use an infant child restraint instead.” Strike one, this seat does not fit an average size one month old correctly.
I removed the bulky head support that was pushing her head so far forward and re-installed the seat (the next day – we’re not working with ultra patient models, here!) and her head was still pushed further forward than I would be comfortable with for a newborn, even without the head support. This photo also illustrates the massive amount of front to back space this seat takes up when properly reclined for a newborn. I’m average height, and there’s no way I could sit comfortably in front of this seat and be able to drive.
Second, I moved on to stage two of this car seat: forward facing using the five point harness. My son is four and a half years old, weighs 36 pounds and is 41 inches tall. He also carries the majority of his height in his legs, rather than his torso.
Back to page 12 of the instruction manual, this time the guidelines for the forward facing position: “harness guide must be even with or just above the shoulders. If the harness is below the child’s shoulders with the headrest in the highest position, the child weighs at least 40 lbs and is over 1 year old, convert the seat to a belt positioning booster.” The harness is adjusted to the highest position in this photo, and here is a close up of the positioning:
The harness is the tiniest bit below his shoulders, making him too tall to ride in this seat. As I said, he also happens to carry a lot of his height in his legs rather than his torso – the average four year old would have outgrown this harness much sooner than my son has. This puts me in an interesting pickle, because he is too tall to use the harness, however the minimum guidelines for the belt positioning booster use are 40 lbs and 43″, of which he is neither.
It is very important to note here, that in addition to being the proper size, children must also have a certain amount of maturity before moving from a five point harness to a belt positioning booster. The job of a booster is simply to position the adult sized seat belt over their child sized body, it’s not a restraint like a 5 point harness is. For a booster seat to do its job properly, the seat belt must fit properly at all times which means the child can’t be leaning out of their seat, slouching, or unbuckling their seat belt. A small handful of four and a half year olds have that kind of maturity and impulse control – mine certainly does not, and his regular seats are all 5 point harnessed seats that he fits correctly in. The majority of children are well over five years old before they are mature enough to handle the responsibility that comes with a booster seat.
For purposes of demonstration, I took pictures of my son using the belt positioning booster function of the Alpha Omega because I want to highlight this seat’s biggest downfall – the positioning of the seat belt in booster mode.
Kids need booster seats because they are not tall enough, nor their hips developed enough for the lap belt to sit properly in their lap. The guides on the Alpha Omega allow the lap belt to sit far too high on the child’s abdomen, as this photo demonstrates. This booster allows the top of the lap belt to sit just slightly below the child’s belly button. In a crash, his soft abdomen would take the brunt of the force, allowing the seat belt to tear through his internal organs, likely not stopping until it reaches his spinal column and does significant damage there as well. The shoulder belt is also positioned too far off the edge of the shoulder, it should be resting evenly across the child’s collarbone.
This isn’t an anomaly with my child or my vehicle, the Alpha Omega Elite is one of only two seats on the IIHS “not recommended” booster list.
For comparison purposes, here is a proper booster seat fit:
Note how the lap belt is sitting low and flat across the child’s hips, touching the tops of the thighs and the shoulder belt is positioned evenly across the collarbone. This is a safe seat belt fit, and how any child’s seat belt should fit in a booster seat. The seat pictured is a Graco TurboBooster, available for around $50 at many major retailers.
There are many incarnations of the Alpha Omega available; Dorel Juvenile Group owns Safety 1st, Cosco, Eddie Bauer, and Maxi Cosi and there are versions of the seat under several Safety 1st, Cosco, and Eddie Bauer names. They do now offer versions with 50 and 65 pound weight limits for the forward facing harness function, and those models do have higher harness slots to accommodate taller kids in the harness. However, the seats still don’t fit young babies, and the booster function is still incorrect and could cause serious injury to a child. The 40 lb model used for this review is still widely available.
The idea of buying one car seat is appealing, sure – especially when it only costs around $100! It’s important to look at what you’re getting – just looking at the box and seeing 5-100 lbs is missing a whole lot of details. NHTSA estimates 3/4 car seats are used incorrectly, and CPSTs will tell you from their experience in the field, that number is even higher. When a seat is difficult to use correctly, that ups the chances significantly that a parent will make an error that could be the difference between a child sustaining a severe injury in a crash or not. We know that parents need to stick to a budget – absolutely! But this isn’t the way to do it. Focus on finding a seat that fits your child, fits your vehicle, and can be used properly 100% of the time, one stage at a time.