NHTSA Proposes Side Impact Protection for Children

With just six months to go before a Final Rule is due to be published, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has released its proposal to add side impact testing to the child seat safety standard for children up to 40 pounds.

To the uninformed, the NPRM reads like the history of an agency moving forward expeditiously toward a test that will lead the way for global child safety standards. And it is true that the proposed sled test adds a new deformable door component. But a more complete dive into the history of side-impact crashes and protection for child shows that this innovation should have been an amendment to an existing side impact test for child safety seats. This proposal is waaaaay late, and the result of not one—but two—Congressional mandates, about a dozen years apart.

Here’s the truth: (And you can measure it by policy, by regulation, by research, by public engagement – it all comes out the same.) Protecting children in crashes has never been a priority for the agency, nor for the automakers. That’s how you get the first side-impact compliance test for child safety seats in 2014.

Nonetheless, some child seat safety experts are applauding the effort.

“I’m very excited that this is finally being implemented,” said Gary Whitman, Vice President, Research and Development at ARCCA Inc, and an expert in occupant crash safety systems who has tested hundreds of child seats and collaborated with NHTSA, the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Academy of Pediatric Child Injury Prevention, National SAFE KIDS Campaign, and the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania in child restraint research. “It’s long overdue and it’s a shame that it required an act of Congress.”

At the same time, Whitman and biomechanical expert Salena Zellers Schmidtke agree that the proposal has some serious deficits – it only protects children up to 40 pounds, and makes questionable assumptions about the efficacy of side air curtains for children in booster seats in a side impact crash.

Time to Examine Rear-Facing Infant Seat Safety Improvements?

That an infant seat should be placed in the rear-seat of the car, facing rearwards is an article of faith, preached by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the American Academy of Pediatricians. Manufacturers only make rear-facing infant seats.

On its website, NHTSA advises:

“A rear-facing car seat is the best seat for your young child to use. It has a harness and in a crash, cradles and moves with your child to reduce the stress to the child’s fragile neck and spinal cord. Your child under age 1 should always ride in a rear-facing car seat.”

But Transport Canada researcher Suzanne Tylko presented data at the biennial Enhanced Safety of Vehicles conference that questions the certainty of that policy. Transport Canada has been at the forefront of child motor vehicle crash safety research. In particular, the agency’s dynamic testing has yielded important insights. In this three-year study, TC tested 131 child restraints in 85 motor vehicle crash tests. The vast majority were rigid barrier tests on rear-facing infant seats, secured by a three-point belt conducted at speed of 48km/h; 11 were conducted at 56 km/h; and seven were conducted at 40 km/h. TC also tested seats in offset deformable barrier tests, conducted at 40 km/h. (Fourteen tests involved convertible seats installed facing the rear.)

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