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What Makes a Convertible Car Seat Safe?

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

I felt like writing this post today, because of my history in the education of car seats.  This past week, another manufacturer issued a safety recall of car seats, and it got me thinking.  “I wish all parents knew what really makes a car seat safe”.

Like most parents, when I had my first son, we just figured, “what’s the difference?  I’m sure if the US government approves of a manufactured car seat sold in the US, then it’s safe.  Why not get a less expensive seat and save the money?  I mean, would the US government really allow an unsafe seat on the market?”  So, I went to Wally World and bought an inexpensive convertible car seat.

After a couple of years, as we developed SmartMomma, I noticed that not all car seats are created equally.  Here I was with a plastic car seat with no EPS-lined foam on the sides, so that if there was an impact, my child’s head would be protected by a flimsy shield of plastic, about as thick as a frisbee.  Not good… This brings me to Point 1.

  • Car seat must be lined with EPS energy-absorbing foam.

This absorbs some of the energy of an impact and helps to protect the side of your child’s head and body from the impact with the side of the seat or foreign object when in a side-impact crash.

Another problem I had was that I could literally NOT install the seat by myself.  Who knew that inexpensive seat meant difficult, if not impossible, to install tightly and easily enough for a typical mom, who does not have the strength of her husband to tug and tug tight enough for the seat not to move around.

Here is a rule of thumb.  A car seat should not move more than one inch after installed.  If it moves more than that, it is not safe.  This would not be that big of a deal, except when I moved my car seat to my mom’s car, or if I needed to wash the cover because my son threw up in the car, I could literally not go anywhere all day until my husband got home and installed the stupid seat.   It was pathetic that I could not do this myself, but seriously, I would pull and pull and it would move about 2-3 inches, not nearly good enough.  Now I’m a busy mom, so I can’t just sit around waiting for my husband, so that seat just had to go.

That brings me to point 2 and the most important thing to look for in choosing a car seat is:

  • Car seat MUST be easy to install.

If the car seat is not easy to install and the instructions/design of the seat is not intuitive, chances are you will install it incorrectly.  That is not your fault as a parent, as much as it is the manufacturer.  Now I have a great seat, that I can install without the help of my husband.  It’s just two clicks, a knee in the seat and a couple of tugs and it’s in!

One of our manufacturer reps was in the store today to show us the difference between two competing well-known manufacturers and what makes their seats different, and I noticed another important point to look for.

  • Solid steel-enforced foundation

Most car seats are reinforced with plastic.  YES, PLASTIC!  This flimsy material is no match for maintaining the integrity of a car seat during a crash and therefore, cannot by itself thoroughly protect your child’s body.

This steel or magnesium foundation could be a steel bar, magnesium shell, or steel shell (even better).

A bit of trivia.  What part of your child’s body is most likely to be hurt in an automobile crash?

You guessed it!  The head!  How can we better protect this vital part of your child’s body?  An interesting fact was brought up to our store from one of our manufacturers.  They talked to the ER staff of major hospitals around the USA and found that the government standards were not protecting a child’s head from hitting the back of the front seat in a head-on or rear collision.  This resulted in an increase of head injuries that were entirely preventable with the right car seat and the right amount of tension in the harness.  A lot of this is user error, or with some great add-ons from manufacturers.  This includes tangle free harnesses, easy to tighten belts, and one manufacturer even offers “Click-Safe” technology, which produces an audible clicking noise when the harness is tight enough on your child, which brings me to another feature to look for.

  • Tangle-free, easy to tighten harnesses

When you do choose your seat, also make sure that you are tightening that harness so that there is no slack in the shoulder nor hip area of the child.  Your child may complain, but you are protecting your child when you make sure the harness is at the proper tightness.

While we are talking about head safety, we have one more area that you should consider when buying your child a convertible car seat in relation to safety.  That is the extra side impact protection head piece.  Some examples of these models include the Britax Boulevard or Advocate, Recaro ProSport or ProRide, and the Sunshine Kids Radian XTSL.  It is my opinion that paying a little bit more and getting these models over the less expensive models offered by the same manufacturers really does make a difference with side impact.

To illustrate this point, check out this quick Sunshine Kids Radian XT crash video, which clearly shows the extra side impact wings/head piece cradles the head and gives extra protection that would not be there without the wings.


As a retailer, I did not push the importance of the side head protection on my customers until I saw this video.  Many parents are worried that this blocks the view of their child and they won’t be able to see as well.  As a mom, I can certainly see the point, but I must say, both of my boys were upgraded to these seats and they have never complained; and I feel better knowing that they have this extra safety, and that means piece of mind for me.  My older son, Dillon, seemed to sit forward for the first couple of days in the car seat, as if to see better, but then quickly got used to the change.  Your child will sit in whatever seat you get for them, and in relation to their ultimate safety, this point of not being able to see as well, seems unimportant.  Most children don’t even notice a difference, and if you are moving them from an infant carrier, it is virtually no difference at all in relation to the view.   So the last important point…

  • Extra Side impact HEAD protection that goes beyond the sides of the seat: a head piece lined in EPS foam

Well, I hope that this guide helps you make a decision about what car seat to go with for your child.  I encourage you to go to your local independent juvenile retailer to explore all the different options, and to help you choose the absolute right seat for you.  These stores are the ones with the knowledge and the options, and most of the owners are parents themselves.

I hope you walk away from this blog post empowered to choose the right car seat for your most precious cargo; your child.  We all want the best for our children, and want our kids to be safe.  Happy Travels!

I leave you with more crash test videos.



AAP Releases Car Seat Safety Guide

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

Not sure which kind of car seat your child needs?  Check out the recently published Car Safety Seat Guide for parents, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.  It gives some helpful hints about what to look for in an infant carrier, convertible car seat, or booster seat.  It also helps you make the decision as to when to transition your child, and give you some direction on installation and function of the car seat.

You can find this helpful guide at: http://www.aap.org/family/carseatguide.htm.

As a reminder, SmartMomma carries the following brands in car seats

-Sunshine Kids

We hope this guide published by the AAP helps to make your car seat decision easier.

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