Are booster seats safe? Investigations say testing was faulty

In February 2020, the nonprofit newsroom ProPublica published an investigation into whether Evenflo, a major manufacturer of child booster seats for cars, had falsely claimed that its products were safety tested.

ProPublica found that Evenflo’s “Big Kid Booster” seat was advertised as “side impact tested.” The company did perform side-impact tests, but the products failed those tests, sometimes dramatically.

In simulated crashes, the child-size dummies were thrown far outside the confines of the seats. In a real crash, an Evenflo engineer admitted in a deposition, the child could suffer catastrophic injuries to the head, neck and spinal cord or could even die.

In its investigation, ProPublica was able to access a variety of materials that had previously been shielded by court secrecy orders.

Those materials showed something even more surprising. The side-impact crash test that the Big Kid Booster failed wasn’t even one mandated by safety regulators. Evenflo had been allowed to invent the test and even to decide what constituted a passing grade. Nevertheless, its booster seat failed.

Side-impact crashes are common and very serious. In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, side-impact crashes were responsible for a quarter of all vehicle-crash deaths among children under 15 in the U.S.

Twenty years ago, Congress directed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to enact standards for side-impact testing in child car seats. The agency has failed to do so.

New congressional investigation finds similar problems among competitors

ProPublica’s report prompted an investigation by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy. The committee found that the lack of mandatory side-impact testing has allowed other manufacturers to skip this crucial test — or make the test meaningless.

The subcommittee has formally requested that NHTSA and the Federal Trade Commission investigate “unfair and deceptive marketing and unreasonable risks to safety” by booster seat manufacturers. It has also urged state attorneys general to consider whether any manufacturers have violated state consumer protection laws.

“Our investigation revealed that booster seat manufacturers are more interested in leading parents to believe that their products are safe rather than ensuring that they actually are,” the subcommittee’s chair told ProPublica.

Other booster seats may be dangerous, too

The subcommittee’s report found Evenflo was “among the worst offenders” in marketing seats to children as light as 30 pounds, but other manufacturers have also been problematic.

Some have marketed booster seats for kids who weigh as little as 30 pounds, despite decades of consensus among experts that booster seats are unsafe for kids under 40 pounds. Children who weigh less than 40 pounds are safest in traditional car seats with internal harnesses. That said, Evenflo and Graco did raise their minimum weight for booster seats to 40 pounds after ProPublica’s original investigation.

Three other brands, Artsana, KidsEmbrace and Baby Trend, continue to market booster seats for kids who weigh less than 40 pounds.

Several manufacturers, like Evenflo, apparently produced advertising that their booster seats had passed side-impact tests when they had not, or when those tests were meaningless.

For example, the subcommittee found, Dorel’s AirProtect feature was advertised as minimizing the risk of child injuries in side-impact crashes. “This is unsubstantiated and misleads consumers into thinking the seats are actually safe,” the investigation found. The congressional investigators found the AirProtect feature does not appear to prevent head and neck injuries in side-impact collisions.

ProPublica has released detailed findings from the congressional investigation.  We strongly recommend reading ProPublica’s latest report for all the detailed findings of the report that are too lengthy to be covered here.

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