Child Car Seat Safety

History of Child Restraint Systems

helmet The history of restraining children in cars as a safety measure is not nearly as extensive as it has been for adults. Child car seats were introduced in 1933, but not for accident protection. In the early 1960s, manufacturers developed crash safety child seats in Sweden. The safety system first placed on the market was a rear-facing seat.  In other countries, manufacturers developed forward-facing systems, which were available to the public by the end of the 1960s. Over the years, various automobile manufacturers and component parts manufacturers have developed different types of child seats, some of which provide good protection, while others have caused injury.

In any crash, the motor vehicle should be designed to contain the occupants within the vehicle, deform in controlled fashion and prevent intrusion into the occupant's survival space. Restraint systems, by design, are intended to couple the occupants to the vehicle frame, allowing for "ride down" of the crash. The more closely the occupants experience the same deceleration as the vehicle, the less acceleration of the occupant's body. Various child restraint systems are designed to provide "ride down" by tying the child to the seat and the seat to the vehicle. Tight coupling of the occupant to the vehicle addresses the issue of the potential for the "second collision"—when the occupant hits the interior of the car—but it does not deal with the "third collision"—which relates to the acceleration experienced by the internal organs of the body, a result which is dependent upon how uniformly the restraint system functions in its fit and control of the crash kinematics.

The front-facing seat at issue here, is generically known as a "convertible child restraint seat". Convertible restraints are tested using at least the 3 year old size child dummy which weighs 33 lbs. Most convertible child restraint manufacturers claim to be for children weighing up to 40 or 45 lbs. In practice, these safety devices should not be used when either the length of the harness straps or the width of the seat is no longer compatible with the child's size. The applicable FMVSS is 213, which was first promulgated in 1971. The purpose stated for this standard is to reduce fatalities and injuries to small children. The standard deals with labeling, installing, adjusting and attaching child seats. In 1974, the standard was amended to require a dynamic test which approximates usage of these devices in a 30mph frontal crash (using a sled device) and measuring force loads on the dummy.

There have been many publications over the years dealing with the perplexing issue of child restraint installation and use. These articles review the many problems consumers have had in fitting/installing these seats in motor vehicles. Often, the authors characterize these problems as "misuse". In fact, in most instances, the mistakes made in installation are directly related to the design of the system or the manufacturers failure to adequately instruct.  The consumers' failure to "correctly" install and use child seats has reached significant proportion. In 1983 and 1984, different investigators found that between 65 % and 75 % of the safety seats in use were incorrectly used.  There is a basic assumption that if the seat is not "correctly" installed its effectiveness will be reduced. A 1987 Report to NHTSA reviewed and summarized the nature of "misuse" found: 

  • Gross Misuse: Either the seat was not secured by the vehicle seat belt, the child was not secured by the harness or shield or neither the seat belt nor the harness or shield were being used.
  • Partial Misuse: Both the seat belt was being used to secure the seat and the harness or shield was being used, but one or the other was routed or used incorrectly or there was some other type of misuse, such as front/rear facing error or tether nonuse or misuse evident.

A statistical evaluation of the "effectiveness" of correctly installed systems to reduce head injury found that there is twice as much of a chance for the child to suffer head injury if the seat is not "properly" fastened.  Another author recently reviewed her findings of the ways in which consumers are incorrectly using child safety seats: incorrect routing of the vehicle belt, not using the belt, leaving the seatbelt very loose, allowing the crotch strap to be loose, and placing the shoulder straps under the child's arms.

In 1987, a study echoed what others have written over the past twenty years:

  • Designers and manufacturers should continue to simplify methods of installation and use.
  • Seats should be designed so that installation does not depend upon a meticulous reading and understanding of the instructions.
  • Seats should not be designed with "add-on" features because consumers rarely use these items.
  • Seats should be designed to provide protection without tethers, because they are rarely used.

The following is a brief accounting of some of the pertinent historical literature relevant to the issue of child safety seat performance and protection:

1. "The Design and Development of a More Effective Child Restraint Concept," Heap and Grenier, SAE no. 68002 (Ford)

  1. If the lap type seat belt is worn by the small child, his mass above the belt can be assumed to cause his torso to jackknife with greater relative violence than should be experienced with the adult. During such loading, there also should be the tendency for the legs and lower torso to be withdrawn upward from the belt loop. The child's skeletal structure is weak, its pelvis is less able to bear load than the adult, and the neck is relatively weaker than an adults because of disproportionate head mass.
  2. Restraint design must account for rollovers, side impacts, rear impacts and frontal crashes and allow for both comfort and safety.

2. "Elements of an Effective Child Restraint System", Rogers and Silver, SAE no. 680776 (GM):

  1. Four fundamental ingredients of a successful child restraint system are impact performance, child contentment, convenience and market appeal.
  2. Head support is critical to the design to control the amount of upper torso motion or jackknifing during impact.
  3. Adult lap belt is not the restraint of choice.
  4. Distributing the load with a child restraint is necessary, with the straps applying pressures on the appropriate places on the anatomy; injury can result of the straps intrude into the child's soft abdominal area or cause severe compression loads on the spine.

Child Injuries and Biomechanics

Children are reportedly less prone to injury than adults under the same impact conditions. There is evidence that the more flexible thorax of the child reduces the risk of internal injury. The head is the site of most frequent injury for all motorists, but interestingly children receive more head injuries than adults, because of the likelihood of contact because of poor restraint and the fragility of their skulls. While the frequency of injury to children is less than adults, the probability of serious injury due to poor restraint is self-evident.

Head Injury and the Losses Associated with these Injuries

The challenge in recovering fair compensation for the mild and significantly impaired child is to obtain and effectively use scientific data to convince the fact finder that the child's future may be substantially impaired because of the head injury he or she suffered. Certain neurological disorders that may arise after head injury can cause extensive or permanent dysfunction and impairment. There are statistics which point to a correlation between the duration of coma and the severity of impairment.  After any head injury, seizures often arise; children more frequently suffer seizures after injury and sometimes develop epilepsy from the early onset of seizures. 

Severe head injury is likely to have life-changing serious consequences. The functional problems range from memory impairment, educational dysfunction, IQ impairment, inability to read and write and comprehend abstract reasoning. Emotional disturbances and social maladjustment, as well as hyperactivity, apathy, and inattentiveness derive from frontal lobe impairment. Of course, the most difficult injury to be measured is the emotional trauma which a young person undergoes when he or she has their life completely altered by physical trauma. Displacement within the family and with peer groups often leads to great frustration and withdrawal.

The extent of treatment and rehabilitation of the head injured depends on the degree to which the child has been incapacitated. Ordinarily, the youngster will require careful review to account for the following potential complications:

  • hypertension
  • urinary problems
  • fever and infection
  • orthopedic problems
  • headache and pain
  • vision problems
  • hearing problems
  • post-traumatic seizures
  • reading disorders
  • emotional dysfunction
  • learning impairment
  • physical dysfunction
  • occupational disability

When the child has suffered life-changing injuries, counsel must develop a "life plan" which allows the jury to consider all of the foreseeable issues that may arise over the client's life time. The issues often include the need and cost of 24 hour care, housing and transportation questions, and the availability of a life style with some semblance of reasonable quality of life. It is not a simple task to present these questions to a jury without appearing to "look for sympathy", but the best approach is to present this evidence as objectively as possible. This reality does not need to be "dramatized", but a tastefully crafted "day-in-the-life film will allow the jury to understand the more subtle implications of the youngster's injuries.

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