As the parent of a five-week-old infant, I was one of those who readily purchased the February 2007 issue of Consumer Reports Magazine, primarily because of their article, "SAFETY ALERT: 10 infant car seats FAIL our tests." Now, we're told that some of the test crashes were conducted at speeds higher than it had originally claimed. We're also told that after concerned parents called into their hotline, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) went so far as to perform its own tests "and brought the error to the magazine’s attention." NHTSA said Consumer Reports' crash tests were conducted under conditions that would represent being struck "at more than 70 mph" --twice as fast as the magazine contended. Now, Consumer Reports is saying that they will retest the car seats and issue a replacement article soon.
After wading through the dozens of news reports on this, I'm left wondering whether we're being told the whole story on what compelled Consumer Reports to retract their article. Was it really the calls from concerned parents? Or could it have been the threats flooding in from the attorneys of the manufacturers and retailers of those car seats that did not perform so well in these (perhaps) overzealous tests?
There's a sub-article in the same Consumer Reports piece with the headline: "A Seat sold abroad outperforms U.S. models." Here is an excerpt:
"Infant seats sold in England and the 24 other countries of the European Union must meet safety standards that include a 31-mph frontal crash. Many are also tested in a 40-mph frontal crash and a 31-mph side collision. The results are teh basis of widely publicized safety ratings for cars. The ratings include an assessment of how a car seat performs in a specific car. Automakers are required to make those seats available for purchase.
In the U.S., car seats must withstand only a 30-mph frontal crash, even though most passenger vehicles are tested in a 35-mph frontal crash and a 38-mph frontal crash and 38-mph side impact.
Another notable difference between the European and U.S. infant seats we tested is that the European Cosy Tot includes an attachment or "foot" as part of the base that adds stability in frontal crashes.
The U.S. safety standard makes it difficult for companies to incorporate the foot into U.S. car-seat designs because of the way compliance testing is conducted.
...Peter Claeson, secretary of the Standards Working Group for Child Restraints for the International Standards Organization says a common safety standard for car seats would benefit everyone. "If you could agree on what is a good regulation worldwide, it is good for all parties," Claeson says. "It is much easier for consumers to be confident that they have a safe seat."
Here is the note from the President of Consumer Reports, Jim Guest, who signed his name to the report (my emphasis added):
"...the images I saw of our latest tests filled me with dread: Dummies tumbled like Raggedy Anns, seats flew across the lab, plastic bases cracked, and LATCH straps broke.
You will ask why a car seat that rated tops in our 2005 report did so poorly in our current tests.... The answer is that this time, we held the seats to more rigourous standards. Our new measure: We simply applied the same safety parameters for car seats that are applied to vehicles themselves.
You will ask why a seat that failed the current federal standard is even on the market. We have the same question, and we believe that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the manufacturer must recall the Evenflo Discovery infant seat immediately. We judge it Not Acceptable.
You will ask why infant car seats sold in other countries undergo a battery of tough tests including front and side crashes whose results are widely publicized, while seats in the U.S. do not....
You will ask why the LATCH (short for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system, which was designed to make it easier to secure child car seats safely in place, has proved to be so unreliable. We have the same question, and we want to see a system that any of us could use with confidence."
Extremely bold language from the president of one of the most trusted magazines in America. I don't think those words were taken lightly. Maybe the real lesson Consumer Reports learned from this is not to square up against the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That's essentially what they did with their very public disclosure that Europe has a higher, safer standard than we do in the United States--and then they illustrated it graphically by testing American-manufactured infant car seats against the Euro standard! We failed with flying colors.
It's also a disgrace. You would expect the wealthiest and most technologically advanced nation in the world to have a safety standard that is equal to or more stringent than the Europeans'. But that's not the case--our standards are lower than Europe's.
Mostly, though, it's frightening.
There are three kinds of mistakes: mistakes of ignorance, mistakes of ommission, and mistakes of commission. The worst is the latter--mistakes of commission, because you know it's wrong and you not only go along with it, you act in concert with others around you to commit the error intentionally. Then, particularly when you're affecting the safety of the public (in this case infants), you begin to begin to encroach upon the realm of the criminally culpable. Those honest, concerned citizens who have the ability to see it occurring normally won't remain silent. Nor should they.
Therefore, if parents called the NHTSA, as is being widely reported, my guess is that most of them weren't so much complaining about the CR report, or so much worried about their car seat, as they were demanding to know why our regulations aren't as safe as the EU's....
I'll bet the pressure on Consumer Reports from NHTSA and opposing corporate attorneys from retailers and manfucturers was so relentless that the magazine had no choice but to retract their article or lawyer up.
Was this a glaring example of the regulators being in bed with the regulated? That's the question I expected the media to ask. But they haven't.
So, why is the media is only focusing on the retraction and not the underlying reasons behind it? Here's my uninformed speculation: Once Consumer Reports was effectively silenced, the news releases from NHTSA and the manufacturers of the failed car seats were the only talking points they had before the deadline for the evening news cycle. That's the way these things typically unfold.
From my perspective as a consumer and as a parent, the February 2007 edition of Consumer Reports was, by any measure, an excellent investment. If you have an infant or are planning on having one any time soon, I'd recommend you get a copy too. After reading it and the subsequent retraction, we're now putting our order in for the Britax Cosy Tot, which was the top performer in the Consumer Reports test...intuitively, wouldn't you expect that if it worked well at 70+ mph, it should have our confidence at 35-mph too? My instinct tells me that the reverse logic wouldn't necessarily hold true.
As for my confidence in NHTSA and American infant car seat manufacturers...well, at least for now, that's another story.
Many thanks, Consumer Reports (and Good Luck!)--and don't get caught speeding again.