Car seats are like Batman, according to Dr. Benjamin Hoffman, child passenger safety technician, and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “It’s this really awesome hero that’s significantly flawed,” he says. And like Batman, the car seat has had many, many iterations over the years. Not all have been Michael Keatons. Because, believe it or not, it took manufacturers four decades to even start thinking about using car seats for safety.
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Car Seats
“The genesis of car seats was similar to high chairs,” Hoffman says “It’s meant to make parents lives easier by keeping kids in one place.” Car seats that kept wiggly kids immobile made their debut in the 1930s. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that meaningful safety features appeared.
The idea of car seats as a consumer product first emerged courtesy of the Bunny Bear Company in 1933, but these were not widely used. Car seats evolved upwards over the next decade to not only keep tiny passengers still, but to make it easier for them to see out the window. The car seat was billed as a way to keep your kid in one place, distracted by the world passing by, and less likely to suffer motion sickness. At least tangentially, this did mildly improve driver safety by decreasing the distractions involved in soothing an unsecured child clawing at the window.
But it wasn’t until 1962 that Leonard Rivkin and Jean Ames released two car seat designs intended to protect the child—a metal frame surrounded by a strap from Rivkin, and a rear-facing model with a y-strap from Ames (Ames’ model is closer to the carseats we have today). In the late 1960s, Ford got in on the action with “Tot-Guard”, a molded plastic chair with a seat belt and a paddle surface in front of a child to cushion their heads in the event of a crash. General Motors followed soon after with their “Love Seats”, which featured different size options for infants and children, and were made from polypropylene and padded with urethane foam. Then of course, there was the short-lived and very troubling “Steel Travel Platform” of 1969, which was just a vinyl pad upon whichs kids could freely play in the back of a moving car.
“Not to be crass, but they served as a more convenient launching point for children in crashes,” Hoffman says.
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It wasn’t until 1971 that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NTHSA) first issued safety standards, and it took another seven years for Tennessee to be the first state require car seats. It took well into the 2000s for every state to have a booster seat law. Part of the reason it took so long to legislate safety was that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the NTHSA did not keep data how many kids were getting hurt and or dying from car accidents until the 70’s. Another reason was that, through 1950s, antibiotics were new and vaccines weren’t always available, so passenger safety ranked low on the list of parental priorities. As Hoffman puts it, “What was going to kill your kid was not the car.”
Even now, there’s significant amount of room for improvement to children’s safety on the road. For instance, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the use of booster seats until kids are 4 feet 9 inches, but not every state requires this. Besides, parents seldom install carseats correctly and, even when they do, issues of variability and incompatibility among designs remain significant. Hoffman doesn’t see any of these problems going away soon.
Meanwhile, motor vehicle crashes are currently the leading cause of death among young children, and many of these fatalities are preventable. One easy way parents can lower their risk is to keep their kids in carseats and booster seats a bit longer than they think necessary. Hoffman says that parents often rush to move their kids out of carseats, because they tie such moves with developmental milestones, and celebrate retiring the booster seat to the garage. Instead, parents should celebrate other milestones, and keep their kids in carseats by the book.
Hoffman is optimistic, however, that better carseats will arrive on the market and that safety standards will gradually increase as we learn more about how to keep kids safe on the road. Indeed, he considers a utopia of save seats his main goal. As Hoffman puts it: “My intent, from the moment I got involved in issues of child passenger safety, was to make myself obsolete.”