The Surprisingly Brief (and Appallingly Lax) History of Carseat Safety

Safe carseats are a modern phenomenon. Here's how the industry went from untested novelties to the highest standards in safety.

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Fighting your squirmy kid into a carseat can be one of the banes of parenting. But unlike some of your toddler’s other tantrums (wearing pajama tops to preschool, for instance), this one has dire implications. Your child will survive a fashion faux pas. Not so, an improperly secured car seat.

Yet carseats are something of a modern phenomenon. “A lot of people in the past had this fatalistic idea about car travel,” says Stephanie Tombrello, the Executive Director of SafetyBeltSafe USA. “Some people would die, some people would get hurt, they thought it was just chance.” In fact, the earliest carseat models weren’t even made to prevent injuries. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Bunny Bear Company produced booster seats so that children could look out the car window.

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Safety wasn’t a primary concern with the next generation of carseats, either. Through the early 1960s one could buy devices like “The Tiny World Sit-N-Stand Carseat”, which allowed kids to stand up and stretch their legs mid-voyage. Other carseats consisted of plastic seats, with hooks to loosely anchor them, and some featured a steering wheel a kid could spin just like a driving parent. Suffice to say none of these carseats were safe — nor were they created with safety in mind.

It wasn’t until 1962 that the British inventor Jean Ames built a rear-facing car seat designed to keep kids safe in the event of a crash. Leonard Rivkin, an American inventor, developed a forward-facing model shortly thereafter.

In the States, Ford was the first manufacturer to offer a car seat. Called the “Astro-Guard,” the thirty dollar bucket seat kept kids stationary via a harness anchored at four points. But it offered little protection for children’s vulnerable heads and necks. Ford tweaked its design and by 1965 became the first manufacturer to offer a relatively safe car seat, known as the Tot-Guard. This basic seat featured a plastic shell that provided support and restraint to the upper body. General Motor’s rear-facing Infant Love Seat followed in 1969.

Both GM and Ford’s offerings passed the federal government’s first crash test, performed in 1971. But when Consumer Reports followed with their first test of car seats in 1972, both failed.

Carseats were still something of a novelty, until a grassroots lobbying effort pressured politicians in Tennessee to mandate the use of carseats in 1978. “Two things had to change: laws and social norming,” says Tombrello. Within seven years, both were in place, and all 50 states had similar laws on the books.

“The final frontier [of carseat safety] would be one common sense, scientifically based federal law. But we’re not counting on it.”

The manufacturing floodgates opened. The 1980s and 1990s brought more manufacturers into the fold — some of them toymakers, like Fisher-Price, which developed models that could be used not just as carseats, but carriers, too. In 1990, the ISOFIX, or LATCH, system was standardized, which allowed you to swap a carseat in and out of different vehicles without making major adjustments. More recently we’ve seen the rise of convertible carseats, which start out rear facing and can be swapped to forward-facing once a child reaches the original seat’s height and weight limit.

What’s next for carseat safety? Designers are toying with ways to make them less of a hassle to install, while maintaining the highest safety standards. Volvo has recently floated a concept where a vehicle owner could swap the front passenger seat with a rear-facing baby seat mounted firmly to a base, to ensure that a nervous baby can make eye contact with mom or dad at the wheel.

Meanwhile, the biggest legislative challenge is clearing up disparities in safety standards between states. For that, we would need a federal law mandating at least minimal carseat safety. “Children don’t vary by state, although our patchwork of differing laws might suggest that they do,” says Dr. Alisa Baer of TheCarSeatLady.com. “The final frontier would be one common sense, scientifically based federal law. But we’re not counting on it.”

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