Consumer Reports Combination Car Seat Report

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Over the last several years, Consumer Reports has developed their own setup and methodology for testing car seats.  Their testing scenario relies on real world models that seem to mirror the types of configurations that many families use.  They’ve tested a few types of car seats using this methodology so far.  Their latest set of tests focused on combination car seats.

Let’s start with that phrase.  Their article refers to this type of car seat as “toddler booster child car seats (often referred to as harness-to-booster seats).”

No manufacturer refers to this type of car seat as a “toddler booster,” and we definitely don’t either.

We call this type of car seat a combination car seat, and sometimes expand that to explain that it’s a forward facing only harnessed car seat that can convert to booster mode.  That’s a lot of words but it explains exactly what the seat is — a great option for a forward facing preschooler that can convert to a booster seat when the child is ready.   At no point are we inclined to use language that implies to anyone that we think a booster seat is an appropriate choice for a toddler.

For us, today and for all the days we’ve been an organization, we consider a child ready to make this switch from a forward facing harnessed car seat to a booster seat sometime after their 5th birthday.  Again, that’s a lot of words but those words explain exactly what’s happening.

Back to that article.  Our concern around the latest Consumer Reports article starts with the title: “Child Car Seats From Britax, Cosco, and Harmony Break in CR’s Tests.” These words strike fear into the hearts of caregivers.  We’re not fond of sensational language that scares parents into panic.

Like we did when the Consumer Reports report on convertible car seats was released, we’d like to address the fear that headline provokes and take a closer look.  This latest report focuses on three combination car seats that we highly recommend for various situations: the Britax Frontier, Cosco Finale, and Harmony Defender.

Short Version of our Response

We still stand by our recommendation of these combination car seats.  We continue to advocate that children ride in a harnessed car seat until they are at least age 5 and have the size and maturity to sit properly in a booster.

Longer Version of our Response

FMVSS sled test

FMVSS sled test

The current FMVSS test bench is not flawless.  It’s based on an older setup with a flat bench that doesn’t mirror the shape of many of today’s modern vehicles.

However.

The FMVSS test bench does represent the standard to which all car seats and booster seats on the market today are tested.  Car seats and booster seats that do not meet or exceed the standards set forth by FMVSS213 cannot be sold. Period.

This standard didn’t just materialize out of nowhere.  It was developed over the course of decades, starting in 1981 with an update in 2003. Calspan, a leading provider of FMVSS213 testing, described the standard this way:

  • Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 213 (FMVSS 213). This U.S. standard requires CSRs to pass a 30-mph frontal sled test, which simulates a crash. This standard applies to passenger cars, multipurpose passenger vehicles, trucks, buses and aircraft.

While we fully acknowledge the disparity between the standardized FMVSS213 test bench and some aspects of the real world, the Consumer Reports test bench is not an FMVSS213 approved bench.  All car seats sold today are designed and tested around this FMVSS213 test bench.  They’re not designed around Consumer Reports’ setup or methodology.  Or around any other well-intentioned organization that may choose to develop their own test setup and methodology.  They’re designed around FMVSS213 and they pass or exceed all criteria for FMVSS213.

Beyond the Test Bench

Beyond the concern around the test bench, Consumer Reports adds some criteria that may make their article unnecessarily alarming.

Firstly, Consumer Reports performs their crash testings at a higher speed than the FMVSS testing, which means Consumer Reports are performing their testing under conditions more severe than approximately 95% of car crashes.

35 mph crash tests are more severe than the majority of crashes. This is the equivalent of driving head on at 35 mph into a car that is also moving 35 mph, or like hitting a concrete barrier. Even the 30 mph required for federal car seat testing is considered a severe crash.

Secondly, outside of secondary collision concerns, if the harness or tether stretches or the seat’s shell deforms a bit, the seat has still done the job of protecting the child during the initial crash.  Car seats are single use products that are designed to protect a child through one crash, not several crashes.

What We’ve Said Before

Our 2015 response to their report on convertible car seats addresses a lot of our concerns around their testing setup and methodology.

Our Response to the Consumer Reports Combination Car Seat Recommendations

Graco TurboBooster TakeAlong 6 years old

Graco TurboBooster TakeAlong 6 years old

The Consumer Reports article suggests the following solution:

  • If your child weighs 40 pounds or more (the minimum weight allowable for booster use in these seats), you can use the seat in booster mode if they can bend their knees comfortably over the front of the booster seat and can achieve a proper vehicle belt fit. That means the belt is centered on the shoulder and sits low across the hips.

We have some pretty big concerns around this suggestion.  Our experience shows that age is the best first criteria for moving to a booster seat.

Prime example: Moving a wiggly 3 year old who weighs 45 pounds who rides in harnessed mode in any of these car seats to booster mode will absolutely result in more injury than using the harness of the same car seat.

Pictured here is a 6 year old model who’s mature enough to sit properly in a booster seat.

Industry Response to the Consumer Reports Combination Car Seat Recommendations

The Juvenile Products Manufacturing Association (JPMA) has also issued a statement around this testing.  This statement very much aligns with ours.

Manufacturer’s Responses to the Consumer Reports Combination Car Seat Recommendations

Note: the statements from Britax and Harmony are taken from the Consumer Reports article while the Dorel statement came directly from a Brand Representative at Dorel.

Britax: According to a statement from the company, “The Britax Harness-2-Boosters tested by Consumer Reports are safe when used as intended and in accordance with the instructions and warnings contained in the user guides.” Britax also said the company would “continue to stay engaged with Consumer Reports to benefit from their perspective.”

Dorel: (parent company of Cosco) “The Cosco Finale exceeds all federal safety requirements, and out of the 350,000 in use, there have been no reported injuries. The recent Consumer Reports dynamic crash testing of the Finale was done far in excess of the NHTSA standards, so much so, that the Dorel Juvenile crash test team has been unable to recreate the results at its onsite crash test facilities.  Most importantly, even in the Consumer Reports crash tests, the Cosco Finale performed the primary function of restraining the child (test dummy), controlling excursion and avoiding injury at the elevated crash forces used by the Consumer Reports protocol.  In fact, this seat passes NHTSA testing without the use of the tether.   We stand by the quality of this seat.”

Harmony: “In a statement to CR, said that its seat meets all current U.S. federal standards. The company also said that CR’s testing “did not take into account practical matters such as how the car seat fits or installs into vehicles, which affects overall safety greatly …” Harmony pointed to what it described as “several discrepancies within Consumer Reports’ testing that differs from other testing, both independent and internal” that would “impact the testing results greatly.” The company did note that it “appreciates all comments from customers as well as independent bodies such as Consumer Reports as all such information is always used in the ongoing improvements of all our products.””

Standing By

We await additional information from Consumer Reports regarding their full results and will follow up with you as soon as they do.

In the meantime, we stand by the industry standards.  NHTSA requires that today’s car seats meet or exceed Federal Safety Standard 213 and all car seats, including the ones mentioned in the Consumer Reports article, meet or exceed that standard.

We absolutely respect what Consumer Reports is trying to do with this reporting but we’re not so fond of the fear-provoking headlines.

Bottom line: even in the article, Consumer Reports says don’t move a child who weighs more than 40 pounds to a booster seat if they “can’t achieve proper vehicle belt fit in booster mode” and “don’t stop using your child’s car seat unless you have one to replace it.”  We agree with these statements.

If your child is more than 5  years old and weighs more than 40 pounds and is using one of the car seats mentioned above,  this article may help you determine if switching them to booster mode is an option.

Learn more about Consumer Reports’ test process.