Car Seat Ratings Explained
There are many organisations that conduct tests and provide reviews and car seat ratings, but there are only a few that can be considered credible, trustworthy sources that you can rely on. When it comes to choosing a car safety seat for your child you want to be certain of the validity and quality of the information that you are basing your buying decision on. In this article we give an overview of the best providers of car seat ratings including the methods they use to derive their ratings and how their system works. If you stick to the advice from these companies you can't go too far wrong in our opinion and we are always sure to consider this in our own car seat reviews here at Kid Sitting Safe.
Child car seat ratings agencies can be divided into two main groups:
Those that perform their own crash tests against defined criteria (Crash Testing Organisations); and
Those that do not perform their own crash tests but provide comments and ratings based on their review of the seat including the available information about it and consumer feedback. We would include ourselves in this category. (Product Review Websites)
These two groups are then generally organised based on geographical location, since child car seat types as well as legislation differ across the globe. For our review we will focus on the ratings to look out for if you are located in the United States. We will look in detail at Car Seat Ratings Organisations relevant to other regions in a future article.
Car Seat Ratings - Crash Testing Organisations
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
All child restraints sold in the United States are required to comply with the dynamic testing requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 213, Child Restraint Systems. This Standard is developed and enforced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and child seat manufacturers self certify that they have complied with it.
NHTSA does not rate the safety of child car seats but provides ease-of-use ratings that allow you to evaluate how easy certain car seat features are to use. The intent of their ratings system is to encourage child restraint manufacturers to produce child restraints with features that make it easier for consumers to use and install, thereby, leading to increased correct use of child restraints and increased safety for child passengers. Correct installation of the seat is equally if not more important than selection of the seat as even the top rated safety seats will not adequately protect your child in a crash if they are not installed correctly. Reports estimate up to 90% of car seats are not correctly installed, which highlights that this should be a priority focus for parents. All car seats that NHTSA provide ease-of-use ratings for meet the Federal Safety Standards and strict crash performance standards. Their ease of use rating is split into four basic categories:
Evaluation of Instructions
Examines the content and clarity of the instructions manual for the child restraint
Vehicle Installation Features
Examines the ease of using features that pertain to installing the child restraint in a vehicle
Evaluation of Labels
Examines the content and clarity of the labeling attached to the child restraint
Securing the Child
Examines the ease of using features that pertain to securing a child correctly in the restraint
NHTSA uses the following rating system to help consumers evaluate the four basic categories above:
Excellent features on this child restraint for this category
Above-average features on this child restraint for this category
Average features on this child restraint for this category
Below-average features on this child restraint for this category
Poor features on this child restraint for this category
Does not contain any features that require a rating
Parents can use the specific ratings categories to consider which child restraint meet their specific needs. For example, if you plan to swap your child restraints in and out of multiple vehicles on a regular basis you would be best to consider a child restraint with the highest rating in the “Vehicle Installation Features” category whereas this category would not be as important if you are familiar with child restraints and do not plan to move it from your vehicle once installed.
Look out for these star ratings on seats that you are considering.
For additional information regarding NHTSA’s Ease of Use program, please visit www.nhtsa.gov.
Consumer Reports (CR) is an expert, independent, nonprofit organization whose mission is to work for a fair, just, and safe marketplace for all consumers and to empower consumers to protect themselves. To maintain their independence and impartiality, they accept no outside advertising and no free samples and employ several hundred mystery shoppers and technical experts to buy and test the products they evaluate. Most of their funding comes from the subscription to their service.
Consumer Reports has for many years performed their own simulated 30 mph frontal crash testing based on the criteria outlined in FVMSS 213.
CR developed their own test protocol to provide consumers with comparative information on a car seat’s potential for offering an extra margin of safety in certain crash conditions simulated by their tests. They evaluated the seats’ performance on a scale that ranks seats from those that had the least potential to offer that extra margin (“basic”) to seats that had more (“better”) and the most potential (“best”). Based on the fact that all car seats must meet the government safety standards as a minimum the intent of these ratings is to identify which seats provide an extra level of protection, so its important to note that a “basic” rating does not mean the seat is unsafe. Their crash test was developed to be more rigorous than the government standards. Their latest ratings were published in April 2014 and their top overall performer (crash protection and other factors combined) is one of our Top Rated Car Seats, the Chicco Keyfit 30.
Overall score is based on crash protection, scores for ease of use and fit to vehicle, in LATCH and belt modes, using the car seat with its base. The displayed score is out of a total of 100 points
Evaluation of a seat’s potential for providing an additional margin of safety in simulated 35mph frontal crashes when compared to the performance of similar models. Evaluation is based on injury criteria measured on standardized child-size dummies, head contact with the back of a simulated front seat, and the car seat’s ability to remain intact during the course of testing.
Ease of Use
Includes the clarity of instructions, installing the seat, adjusting harness positions, placing a child in the seat, securing the harness, and removing the child.
Fit to Vehicle - LATCH
A rating of how easy it is to securely and correctly install each seat using the LATCH system in a variety of vehicles and how well the seats fit each vehicle once installed.
Fit to Vehicle - Belt
A rating of how easy it is to securely and correctly install each seat using the vehicle belts in a variety of vehicles and how well the seats fit each vehicle once installed.
Access to the full Consumer Reports review findings requires a subscription, however some key findings summarised by cars.com were:
- 13 out of 34 seats scored “best”
- 16 out of 34 seats scored “better”
- 5 out of 34 seats scored “basic”
- added cost doesn't equal increased safety
The 13 infant seats that earned the top score of best are:
- Britax B-Safe
- Chicco KeyFit
- Cybex Aton 2
- Cosco Comfy Carry
- Evenflo Secure Ride 35
- Graco SnugRide 30 (Classic Connect)
- Maxi-Cosi Mico
- Safety 1st Comfy Carry Elite
- Safety 1st Comfy Carry Elite Plus
- Safety 1st onBoard35 Air
- The First Years Contigo
- The First Years Via I470
The respected car seat installation blogger, the car seat lady, raised questions about the validity of the CR reviews. They criticised the fact that the tests focus was on frontal crashes when side impacts make up 40% of the crashes in which a child aged 0-8 dies. They also found various inconsistencies and inaccuracies with the CR reports. The Car Seat Ladies comments can be found here: https://thecarseatlady.wordpress.com/2014/04/04/csladdressescr/#comment-10258
Click here for Consumer Reports' full test results (subscription required)
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
IIHS tested 72 popular booster seat models and have produced ratings for booster seats only. They confirm which seats are most likely to provide good lap and shoulder belt fit in a range of vehicles. Unlike child restraints with built-in harnesses, booster seats rely on vehicle safety belts to restrain children. Boosters are supposed to make adult belts fit children better and are for kids who have outgrown their forward-facing restraints. That means the lap belt will lie flat across a child's upper thighs, not across the soft abdomen, and the shoulder belt will cross snugly over the middle of a child's shoulder.
IIHS assesses boosters using a special crash test dummy representing an average-size 6 year-old. Engineers measure how three-point lap and shoulder belts fit the dummy in each of the tested boosters under four conditions that span the range of safety belt configurations in vehicle models. An overall rating for each booster is then assigned based on the range of scores for the lap and shoulder belt measurements.
The Institute puts the booster seats it tests into four categories:
- BEST BETs are seats that provide good belt fit for typical 4 to 8 year-olds in almost any car, minivan or SUV.
- GOOD BETs provide acceptable belt fit in most cars, minivans or SUVs.
- Not recommended don’t provide good belt fit and should be avoided.
Check fit applies to booster seats the Institute has tested that have varied results depending on child size and vehicle model. This designation appears on some models in the "Search by brand" section
The list of IIHS BEST BET booster seats can be found here. Kid Sitting Safe will be posting a new review of booster seats in the near future so we will be sure to confirm the IIHS rating as part of the review!
Car Seat Ratings - Product Review Websites
Car Seat Blog
Established in 2007 provide professional carseat reviews on the Internet. Their reviews come with a real personal touch and are always hands-on and based on the years of experience of their dedicated staff. Although they do not perform any tests on the seats that they review, their reviews are very well detailed and provide a real in-depth look at a huge range of seats on the market. There is a wealth of information on this site and we will be sure to note check out their comments on any seats that we review in the future!
Top Ten Reviews
Top Ten Reviews do not conduct crash testing on child safety seats, however they do provide a very clear comparison ratings system based on their opinions on car seats on safety, adjustability, durability, ease of use and convenience, additional features, warranties and after sales support.
Hopefully this article has provided some clarity on the issue of Car Seat Ratings in the US and what to look for. The NHTSA star rating system provides a good guidance on the ease of use of all types of child restraint, whilst the IIHS has a simple categorisation for booster seats. These organisations are trustworthy and undertake rigorous testing procedures and we recommend the use of these ratings to assist you in your choice of seat. Consumer Reports offer a subscription service for many products, not just child car seats and might be worth considering if you are looking into purchasing a number of the products that they test and review. However we would point out that there are limitations to their testing.
With regard to the car seat ratings from Product Review Websites, we have only listed two sites here, which are reliable sites and provide additional information that is worth considering before you purchase a child safety seat. Last but not least there is this site, Kid Sitting Safe! Our aim here is to take the hard work out of your search by finding the best seats based on results and reviews from this combination of Crash Testing Organisations, Car Seat Review Websites and also consumer feedback that we have gleaned from sites such as Amazon. With the wealth of information on the internet sometimes it can be overwhelming and confusing knowing who to trust and we aim to make the process simpler and add value by providing clarity, saving you time in the process!