Stressing that child seats aren't safe unless properly installed in vehicles, the government issued its first-ever ease-of-use ratings Wednesday.
Two different models of the Graco Comfort Sport were the only seats that scored an "A" in all five categories tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. None of the 68 seats tested got below a "B" for an overall rating.
NHTSA gave 107 total grades for overall performance because it tested reversible seats twice — once forward-facing and once rear-facing. The agency gave 39 "A" grades and 68 "B" grades for overall ease.
NHTSA chief Dr. Jeffrey Runge stressed that all the seats are safe, but said ease of use is important because seats offer the most protection when they're properly installed. Runge said he expects the ratings to have an immediate impact.
"My expectation is that all manufacturers will make 'A' safety seats before long," he said.
One company said it already is making changes based on the ratings. Indiana-based Dorel Juvenile Group, which makes the Cosco Regal Ride and the Cosco Ventura, said it is changing inconsistencies in labeling and improving design after the seats got "C" grades for labeling and instructions.
"We as a corporation are taking each category and making sure what we need to do to get 'A' ratings," said Eugene Balensiefer, director of car seat design and engineering.
NHTSA said the ratings will be updated as changes to seats are made.
NHTSA said the 68 infant and booster seats it tested represent about 95 percent of the seats now on the market. Manufacturers tested included Safety First, Britax and Evenflo.
Seats got separate grades on ease of assembly, clarity of labeling, clarity of instructions, ease of securing a child in the seat and whether the seat has features that make it easier to install in a vehicle.
Seven seats earned "C" grades — the lowest grade given — in two categories, but none of the seats got a "C" in more than two categories. The Safeline Sit and Stroll got "C" grades for its labels and instructions, while two Graco youth booster seats — the Century Breverra Ascend and the Century Next Step — got "C" grades for ease of installation and ease of securing the child respectively.
Congress required NHTSA to rate child seats in a 2000 auto safety act.
Also Wednesday, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said that child seats don't always fit well into child seat latches mandated under a 2002 rule.
Under the rule, all new vehicles and child seats must have attachments designed to make them fit together like a key in a lock. The system, called LATCH, for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, is designed to make sure seats fit tightly in a vehicle.
In tests of 10 2003 model vehicles, the Insurance Institute found that the anchors were present but sometimes difficult to reach or secure. It said child seats were easiest to install in the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, the Dodge Grand Caravan and the Toyota RAV4 and most difficult to install in the Cadillac CTS and the Hyundai Santa Fe.
Susan Ferguson, the Insurance Institute's vice president for research, said parents should try fitting a child seat into their vehicle before they buy it.