Child Seat Safety and the Plight of the Manufacturer


The question I have is why would anyone want to manufacture child safety seats?  It makes about as much sense as being a bull rider.  Bull riding probably makes more sense, because they are quite popular and do very well with the ladies, until they get stomped on a few times.  Child seat manufacturers need only look forward to being stomped.

Don’t get me wrong.  I think child seats are wonderful.  Any parent who doesn’t put their infant in a child seat should have their head examined.  Child safety seats save lives.  But, manufacturers take on great risks in selling them.

First, the seat has to comply with Federal standards.  There’s a crash test to ensure the seat and child will survive a crash.  There are buckle tests to ensure that buckles don’t open too easily, but will open after a crash.  They need to have appropriate hardware which will attach to the cars they are put in.  Those clasps have to be able to withstand so many pounds of pressure that might occur in a crash.  The straps have to pass strength tests and all the fabrics have to pass stringent flammability tests.

Is that so unreasonable?  I don’t think so.  The manufactures accept the requirements as their responsibility.  They want to make a safe product.  They test their seats to ensure that they comply with all the requirements.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is responsible for setting the standards.  When I was Chief Counsel for the agency, we tested every new seat to every standard.  We were hyper over child seat safety.  If there was a problem, usually the manufacturer stepped up and recalled the product.  But, some manufacturers just stopped making child seats.

Then, there’s the litigation involved in child seats.  If there is a crash and a child secured in a child seat is injured, you can pretty much bet on a law suit.  It doesn’t matter how many cars were involved, or the speed of the vehicles, or the direction of impact, the company will be sued.  Litigation is one of our national pastimes.  While some times it is definitely justified, many times it is not.

I remember a case where a man’s wife died when she rolled the car and it went off an overpass.  It landed on its roof.  He sued the car manufacturer because the air bag didn’t deploy.  Then there was the one where the woman decided to commit suicide by locking herself in the trunk of her car.  After a few days, she changed her mind.  But, she couldn’t get out.  She was eventually found and survived.  She sued the car manufacturer and recovered.  I guess there should have been a warning in the trunk.

After I left NHTSA, I joined Arent Fox and had the opportunity to represent child seat manufacturers.  Century Products made a great infant seat called the 590.  It was the best selling infant seat.  The base stayed hooked in the car while the infant seat lifted out and acted as a carrier for the child.  Century had never received a complaint regarding separation of the base and the seat in a crash.  Not bad.  But, not good enough.

One day, back in 1995, Consumers Union notified Century that they had crash tested the 590 and that it had failed.  The tests had taken place a few months earlier, but Consumers Union kept the results secret from Century.  They wanted to splash the story in their Consumer Reports magazine.  CU also petitioned NHTSA to recall the 590 for being defective.  Well NHTSA eventually denied CU’s petition, but not soon enough to save the 590.  Life isn’t fair.

I question the motives of Consumers Union, who is suppose to be the friend of the consumer, but conceals safety testing for months.  If their testing showed a safety concern, shouldn’t they quickly notify the manufacturer, or the government or the public?

If I were going to buy a vacuum cleaner or a toaster, I might look at what Consumer Reports had to say.  Then again, maybe I wouldn’t.  But, if we are talking about a product where there is dynamic testing, such as a car seat, or an automobile, I wouldn’t trust Consumers Union.  I don’t think they are qualified and they are too interested in a dramatic story. 

Back in 1996 or 97, I went into a Ford dealership to get some literature on the Ford Explorer.  Some tall skinny dude in a cowboy hat told me they didn’t have any material to give me, but that the Explorer was ranked number one in Consumer Reports.  I got out of there and saved myself and family from being part of the rollover debacle.

Let me get back to my child safety seat proposal.  And it has nothing to do with Consumers Union trying to play the Wizard of Oz.  If a product is mandated by the government (as child seats are in most states), and the Federal government specifies safety requirements for the product, then meeting or exceeding those safety requirements should preclude product liability law suits that attempt to hold the manufacturer to some different standard.  Now there’s some Congressional legislation I could live with and it wouldn’t cost the government any money.

One thought on “Child Seat Safety and the Plight of the Manufacturer”

  1. Good story. We can harp about the greed on Wall Street, but the greed is even more evident in the people who are looking for the “free lunch” through liability lawsuits. The excesses are clear and yet the jury awards are often extreme because they assume that the companies all have deep pockets and it will not really cost any of us mortals a penny. Please write more on your legal experiences.

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