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Congressional probe raises safety concerns about booster seats

Probe raises concerns over booster seats
House investigation raises safety concerns over popular booster seats 06:47

A congressional investigation is raising new questions about the safety of some popular children's car booster seats. The probe began after a ProPublica investigation aired on "CBS This Morning" in February which showed how some booster seats got a passing grade, despite disturbing video of crash test dummies being violently tossed around during safety testing. That video was originally obtained by ProPublica.

New videos obtained by "CBS This Morning" show child-size dummies flailing violently in car booster seats during side-impact crash tests. In each case, the booster seats passed the tests. Because there are no federal standards for such side-impact crash tests, the companies decide what qualifies as passing. 

For children weighing less than 40 pounds, experts say booster seats may not fully protect them in a crash. 

"There is not a scenario in which I would ever want to see a child under 40 pounds in a booster seat. It's just not necessary," said Dr. Ben Hoffman, a lead author of car seat recommendations for the American Academy of Pediatrics. 

Is your child's car booster seat safe? 06:40

Hoffman reviewed the videos obtained during the House investigation for "CBS This Morning" and said he would not have given any of the booster seats shown in the videos a passing grade. 

"The videos where the impact was on the far side, those were especially terrifying because there is so much movement of the head and neck of the dummy outside of the shell of the booster seat," he said. 

Since at least 2002, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended children be at least 40 pounds before transitioning to a booster seat. Canada has required it since 1987, but U.S. regulators still allow for children weighing as little as 30 pounds to use a booster seat. 

Democratic Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois called the booster seat tests "shoddy and meaningless." 

Krishnamoorthi and fellow Democratic Representative Katie Porter of California launched a House Oversight Committee investigation involving seven brands of car booster seats following the February report. The seven brands are Chicco, Britax, Evenflo, KidsEmbrace, Baby Trend, Dorel and Graco.

The House Oversight Committee investigated seven car booster seat brands. CBS News

The investigation found that booster seat makers "endangered the lives of millions of American children and misled consumers about the safety of booster seats by failing to conduct appropriate side-impact testing, deceiving consumers with false and misleading statements … about their side-impact testing protocols and unsafely recommending that children under 40 pounds and as light as 30 pounds can use booster seats." The report calls for the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general to launch consumer protection investigations. 

"Parents are relying on companies to sell safe products and they're relying on the federal government to regulate those products. And unfortunately, neither of those two things happened and that is disgraceful," Krishnamoorthi said. 

"When the manufacturer's guidance is, in fact, a bunch of falsehoods and lies, kids' lives are being put at risk," Porter added. 

"Children's safety is of utmost importance and it's critical any report be as factually accurate as possible in order to give parents and caregivers a full picture," said a spokesman for the Oversight Committee's Republican minority in a statement sent after "CBS This Morning" Thursday. "Unfortunately, this is not the case with the Democrats' report since there are factual inaccuracies about some of the manufacturers' testing standards and weight limits."

Jillian Brown was 37 pounds and 5 years old when the car she was riding in was hit from the side on her way to school. Brown was strapped in her Evenflo Big Kid Booster Seat. The crash left her internally decapitated, paralyzing her from the neck down. Now 9 years old, she's kept alive by a ventilator. 

Evenflo said Brown's booster seat performed as designed and that her injuries were primarily due to the severity of the crash and/or driver error. The company also said the seat meets or exceeds federal standards and passed the company's internal crash tests. 

Evenflo settled a lawsuit with the Brown family this summer. 

But four years before the crash left Brown paralyzed, internal emails from 2012 show Evenflo decided to spend $30,000 in additional labeling costs to market boosters for children 30 pounds and up in the U.S. instead of adopting the 40-pound standard required in Canada for the same seats. 

"I have looked at 40 lbs for the U.S. numerous times and will not approve this," one executive wrote. 

House investigators found several makers have adopted a 40-pound minimum, including Evenflo and Graco in early 2020. But Baby Trend and KidsEmbrace continue to market their booster seats for children as little as 30 pounds. Chicco's website now has a 40-pound minimum, but "CBS This Morning" bought a booster seat Tuesday that was labeled 30 pounds and up. 

"As a parent, I'm begging people to please not put children under 40 pounds in a booster seat," Porter said. "What we've seen from this investigation is terrifying and heartbreaking." 

Coinciding with the release of the report, Porter and Krishnamoorthi launched a website for parents to share complaints and concerns about booster seats. 

The companies mentioned in the report declined to be interviewed on camera, as did their trade association, the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association. Several companies and the trade association issued statements, which are included in full below.

The investigation was also critical of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Despite being directed by Congress 20 years ago to create a side-impact crash test standard for car seats, the agency hasn't done it but said one is coming. 

Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association, of which all brands and companies mentioned in the probe are members, said: 

"A correctly used car seat is a child's best defense in a car crash. Many factors are considered when a parent or caregiver selects the most appropriate car seat for a child, including the child's height and weight. JPMA, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommend that families delay advancing a child to the next restraint category until he or she reaches the maximum height or weight allowed by the manufacturer for the current car seat type and then use a belt-positioning booster seat from the time a child outgrows a car seat with internal harnesses until vehicle seat belts alone fit properly. This position is shared by car seat and booster seat manufacturers, advocate organizations, and more than 40,000 certified Child Passenger Safety technicians across the country.

"Child restraint manufacturers continually and carefully conduct and monitor the latest child passenger safety research, use patterns and recommendations. As a result, car seat manufacturers have developed more harnessed car seats to accommodate taller and heavier children. With this wider variety of harnessed seats now available to caregivers most have voluntarily shifted toward a 40-pound minimum for booster seats.

"Belt-positioning booster seats perform an important vehicle seat belt positioning function, reducing the risk of injury by 45% when compared with vehicle seat belts alone. These positioning devices are not intended to change vehicle seat belt function in side impacts, frontal impacts or other car crashes. Instead, they optimize vehicle seat belt fit so children can fully benefit from the vehicle safety systems.

"The U.S. currently does not require side impact testing of car seats so there is no uniform Federal standard for this testing of any booster seat. The proposed side-impact testing requirements for the U.S. (potentially coming in the next year) focus on crashes that impact the same side of the vehicle where a child is seated, rather than far-side impacts, which result in a smaller number of the real-world injuries cited in the related Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for future side-impact requirements. This near-side performance testing is similar to lateral testing for side-impact occupant protection systems in vehicles done by automobile manufacturers. Since there has been no U.S. side impact testing requirement for car seats, and even the proposed testing does not cover all crash scenarios, some manufacturers voluntarily supplement the requirements with additional established configurations, including European, Australian and internal standards.

"As parents and grandparents ourselves, the juvenile products industry supports stringent federal standards and remains relentless in our efforts to improve product safety and support parents and caregivers in selecting and using products to care for and protect infants and young children."

Dorel statement: 

"Every booster seat that Dorel Juvenile sells meets or exceeds all applicable federal safety standards, which are established through rigorous testing done internally, at third party facilities and by NHTSA.  

"We do not market to consumers that our booster seats pass side impact tests, as there is currently no federal standard for this testing.

"Dorel Juvenile has long been active in advocating for the development of a federal standard for side impact testing, including jointly developing a side impact standard with Kettering University and proposing that standard to NHTSA."

Evenflo statement:

"Evenflo is in the business of safety and for the last 100 years has provided parents with some of the most effective, cutting edge and rigorously tested safety products and technology. Evenflo's 800 employees — from the factory floor to the board room — care deeply about child safety and take their jobs and the role Evenflo products play in childrearing extremely seriously.

"When it comes to car seats, understanding children come in all shapes and sizes, with varying levels of maturity, Evenflo recognizes that parents need a variety of options to best provide their children with the safest ride available. Evenflo's safety standards meet, and in many cases, exceed all government standards and requirements, to ensure consumers are equipped with quality, reliable child safety products – like the Big Kid.

"By using a car seat — which is required by law in every state — parents provide their child the best chance at reducing risk of injury in any reasonably foreseeable crash that might occur. However, there is no one-size-fits-all for every child, seating location and collision type. With all belt-positioning booster style safety seats, the vehicle's seat belt system is the primary restraint component, not the booster seat on which the child sits.

"False and misleading news coverage that asserts that belt-positioning booster seats are not safe may cause parents to prematurely discontinue using belt-positioning booster seats, which simply puts children at greater risk for serious injury in the car."

Graco statement: 

"For over 60 years, Graco has had an unparalleled commitment to child safety and families trust Graco because of our safety records and the lengths we go to design safe products.

"Graco's car seats and booster seats have a minimum and maximum weight capacity that we establish based on our crash testing to (and beyond) the requirements set out by National Highway Traffic Safety (NHTSA). The lower and upper weight specifications reflect the testing limits of the car seat, not the final recommendations for use, as many factors play into selecting the best child restraint for a child including height, weight and age. 

"Graco supports the recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and NHTSA car seat guidelines that all infants and toddlers should ride in a rear-facing car seat as long as possible, until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by their car seat. Most of Graco's convertible car seats have weight and height limits that permit children to ride rear facing for 2 years as some seats have a maximum weight limit of 50lbs. For forward-facing car seats, Graco also supports the AAP and NHTSA recommendation that children should use the built-in harness for as long as possible until they reach the maximum weight or height for the car seat, and after reaching the maximum forward-facing weight or height, that children under 4 feet and 9 inches tall should ride in a belt-positioning booster seat. In some versions of Graco car seats, children can be harnessed forward-facing up to 65lbs and in the booster mode up to 100lbs. 

"In addition, Graco instructs that the car seat installation and child's fit must meet the instructions in the owner's manuals. If the child does not meet the manufacturer's fit guideline for the booster seat, then it is not the right seat for them regardless of weight or height limits and they should remain in a harnessed car seat. 

"The medical experts you reference can't make injury assumptions from our videos simply by watching them because the Anthropomorphic Test Dummy doesn't replicate the human body closely enough to draw accurate visual conclusions. We base our claims on a structural integrity test of the child restraint with the goal to avail the child of the benefits of side impact protection of the vehicle. The keys to providing the child as safe an environment as possible in the vehicle are to make sure the booster is installed according to the owner's manual so the booster seat positions the child correctly to utilize the vehicle safety features, the child to remain secure in the seat and the seat secure to the vehicle."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statement: 

"Issuing new side impact performance standards for child restraint systems is a highly complex process. This requires extensive development and testing, including development of a new sled test procedure, relevant performance requirements, and a new child side impact test dummy. This process is necessary to ensure an objective and representative performance test, which will save more children's lives. NHTSA looks forward to publishing the final rule for side-impact standards soon."

Artsana (parent company of Chicco) had no comment. 

Britax referred to the statement from Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association. 

Baby Trend referred to the statement from Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association. 

KidsEmbrace referred to the statement from Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association. 

House Oversight Committee's Republican minority statement:

Children's safety is of utmost importance and it's critical any report be as factually accurate as possible in order to give parents and caregivers a full picture. Unfortunately, this is not the case with the Democrats' report since there are factual inaccuracies about some of the manufacturers' testing standards and weight limits. This isn't credible oversight and children and their parents deserve better.

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