Child Safety in the Hot Seat : Consumers: A magazine’s ‘not acceptable’ rating for a popular car seat has the maker and a federal agency defending their testing--and parents worried.


Century Products Co. of Macedonia, Ill., introduced its Model 590 infant car seat in 1991 and has sold more than 2 million since. “We are the market leader and proud of it,” said president Frank Rumpeltin.

The two-part seat has a base that straps into the car by the seat belt and a carrier that clicks in and out of the base. “It clicks into shopping carts or a stroller and can be carried into the house with the baby in it,” said Rumpeltin, who’s been developing and manufacturing car seats since the late 1960s. “It’s a wonderful convenience item.”

And it’s been a safe item too, he added in a telephone interview. “No one has ever reported an accident with this car seat.”

Yet Consumer Reports magazine’s September issue, which hits newsstands this week, says in its cover story that the Century 590 seat is one of three seats--of 25 tested--that failed a 30 m.p.h. crash test; the magazine has labeled it “not acceptable.” Consumer Reports, known for its rigorous testing procedures, has asked the manufacturers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to recall the models.


The magazine had never crash-tested car seats before. The response to its findings, announced at a July news conference by its publisher, Consumers Union, has jammed traffic safety hot lines and triggered a flurry of press releases and talk show appearances as experts seek to reassure parents that “not acceptable” may not mean precisely that. The whole debate, technical and emotional, once again raises the question of product safety and how it can best be judged.

“We’ve been encouraging pediatricians to promote car-seat usage for years and it’s our major worry that this will be a setback,” said Dr. Murray Katcher of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “The worst outcome would be for parents to stop using car seats.”

“We are getting calls from all over the country from parents worried about car seats--this story doesn’t go away,” said Cheryl Kim at SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A., a national educational organization based in Inglewood. State car-seat laws, which began with Tennessee in the late 1970s, have now been adopted by every state, she said, and her group’s challenge is getting parents to use them properly: “Car seats do a wonderful job.”

The confusion generated by Consumer Reports’ study is compounded because two of the three manufacturers, including industry leader Century, have refused to recall their car seats, reiterating their faith in their own testing.


One company, Evenflo, had already voluntarily recalled its On My Way 206 infant seat before the Consumer Reports news conference. The company said the seat cracked under certain conditions, based on its own tests.

A second firm, Kolcraft Enterprises Inc. of Chicago, whose Traveler 700 convertible seat was said to be unsafe when facing forward (it passed the test facing backward) has stated that the seat has passed more than 100 tests performed by independent agencies, including NHTSA certification, and is investigating the magazine data.

But it’s the Century 590, which accounts for up to 50% of infant car seat sales nationwide, that has dominated the spotlight as Rumpeltin vigorously denies the magazine’s findings. “It should never have been an issue,” he said.

Since the Century 590 infant seat can be clicked into a base or strapped into the seat alone, the magazine reported testing it both ways. “It performed well without the base,” the report said. But when tested with the base and 20-pound dummy (about the weight of a 9-month-old), the magazine said, the impact separated the carrier and dummy from the base. Three more tests had similar results, Consumer Reports said.

Rumpeltin, who was notified of the results two days before the news conference by Consumers Union, said he asked for a delay the announcement but was refused.

“We’ve done 16 confirming tests since then, with no failures,” he said last week. The car seat meets the federal safety standards required both by the NHTSA and the Canadian government, he said, and his company annually conducts up to 100 safety-related tests to ensure its ongoing performance. Considering that there are no safety-seat requirements for infants and toddlers on trains, buses or airlines, he thinks the emphasis is being misplaced.

“I don’t know what happened at Consumer Reports,” Rumpeltin said. “They did experience this failure. But we have never had the carrier separate from its base in either a simulated or a real-life situation.”

At the Baby Shops in Santa Monica, buyer Terrie Wall said the 590 car seat has been her best seller until now. “We are getting a lot of returns and a lot of confusion,” said Wall, whose shop is part of a national chain. “I’ve sold thousands of these seats since 1991. I don’t see how Consumer Reports can do four tests and say it’s not safe.”



On the surface, the dueling laboratory results have created an impasse:

* NHTSA head Ricardo Martinez, whose agency has received more than 60,000 calls from anxious parents, has reiterated his agency’s standards and assures consumers to trust any certified car seat on the market.

* Consumer Reports, which rated five other Century car seats either first or second in their categories, stands by its results. The magazine used “slightly tougher” standards, including heavier dummy weights, which, it says, the NHTSA should adopt. (In fact, the NHTSA is scheduled to tighten its certification criteria to encompass the heavier weights in 1996 and Rumpeltin said he already uses them.)

Still, some child-safety advocates are finding a positive side in this seeming standoff. The media blitz has provided a forum for discussing the importance of locking clips and tightly restraining car seats; the complexities of various shapes, sizes and styles of harness and shield systems, and the problems of fitting new seats into old cars and vice versa.

Most of all, the experts emphasize that the most unsafe place for a traveling toddler is sitting on a parent’s lap. (“In a crash the child becomes a human missile,” warned one pediatrician.)

Dr. Marilyn J. Bull, professor of pediatrics and director of the Automotive Safety for Children program at Indiana University in Indianapolis, thinks two valuable points are being made: the recognition that any product test has its limitations (“All the tests were done at about 30 m.p.h., so none can be valid at 40, 50 or 60 m.p.h., which means it is relative safety”) and the importance for parents in using car seats properly.

And at the Washington-based National Safe Kids Campaign, executive director Heather Paul said she’s glad everyone is paying attention.


“We’re in a time of changing technology,” she said. “It means that the science of testing is getting better. Car seats themselves got much better in the 1980s, and in the past year a lot more attention has been paid to complex shoulder- and lap-belt systems, and what the seat looks like, and the problems of passenger air bags.”


This also means a lot of frustration for parents, she acknowledges, but with the research being done on universal latch technology, she is predicting the development of seats that will be both safe and easy to use. “In the meantime, we know that the number of kids dying in car crashes is down 9% since 1987, and parents should never lose their faith in child restraints.”

At the NHTSA, which is in the unusual position of being asked to recall products it has certified, enforcement administrator Mike Brownlee said an investigation is under way. “Consumers Union petitioned us for a defect investigation based on the results of their tests and we are gathering data now,” he said last week.

They are obligated to answer within 120 days. “In the meantime, since two of these three seats have passed our standard, and we don’t know of any injuries, our advice to consumers is to keep using them.”