By Patricia Callahan, ProPublica
In an unusually harsh and pointed report, a U.S. House subcommittee, responding to a ProPublica investigation, found widespread evidence that the nation’s largest manufacturers of car seats “endangered the lives of millions of American children and misled consumers about the safety of booster seats” in crashes that can kill or paralyze children.
On Friday, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy upped the ante, formally requesting that federal highway safety regulators, as well as the Federal Trade Commission, investigate “unfair and deceptive marketing and unreasonable risks to safety” by the makers of booster seats. Separately, the subcommittee urged state attorneys general to look for violations of consumer protection laws by these companies.
“Our investigation revealed that booster seat manufacturers are more interested in leading parents to believe that their products are safe rather than ensuring that they actually are,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, the Illinois Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, told ProPublica.
The subcommittee had sought to determine whether the findings of ProPublica’s February investigation into Evenflo, a major manufacturer of booster seats, held true across the industry.
ProPublica determined that Evenflo was marketing its top-selling Big Kid Booster as “side impact tested” even though the company’s own tests demonstrated that child-sized dummies careened far outside their seatbelts in simulated crashes. A top Evenflo engineer admitted in a deposition that real children could suffer catastrophic head, neck and spinal injuries — or die — if their bodies moved the way the dummies did in Evenflo’s side-impact tests. ProPublica spoke to the parents of children grievously injured in just such crashes.
As part of its investigation, ProPublica obtained years of Evenflo’s testing videos, thousands of pages of sworn depositions by company employees and marketing materials that, until then, had largely been shielded by court secrecy orders. The records showed that Evenflo was able to invent its own side-impact test, and determine what constitutes a passing grade, because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration failed to enact standards governing these tests, despite being directed by Congress to do so 20 years ago.
Though less common than head-on collisions, side-impact crashes accounted for a quarter of U.S. deaths of children under 15 in vehicle crashes in 2018, the most recent year of data available. Nevertheless, booster seat makers in the U.S. need only to subject their seats to crash tests that mimic the forces of a frontal collision.
All booster seat manufacturers follow the same lax rules, but without the same access to internal documents, ProPublica was unable to determine whether tests of seats made by Evenflo’s competitors showed the same alarming potential for injury and death.
The House subcommittee found they did. The subcommittee initially launched its own probe of Evenflo, a subsidiary of Goodbaby International Holdings Ltd., but then broadened it, requesting testing videos and internal company documents from six other major manufacturers of boosters. The test records of other manufacturers’ seats showed dummies thrown from their shoulder belts or slamming their heads into simulated doors in ways that the investigators said “expose some children to risk of serious injury and death.” Indeed, the investigators said the manufacturers were relying on “meaningless safety testing.”
The subcommittee’s 33-page report echoed many of ProPublica’s findings. Evenflo was “among the worst offenders” in marketing its seats for children as light as 30 pounds, the congressional investigators found, despite “decades of expert consensus that booster seats are not safe for children under 40 pounds.” Children who weigh that little are best protected in traditional car seats with internal harnesses; boosters raise children up so they can use seat belts designed for adults.
Canada forbids manufacturers from marketing boosters for children under 40 pounds. After U.S. labels on Evenflo’s Canadian seats forced three recalls in Canada by 2012, an Evenflo engineer, who had earlier raised safety concerns, pressed the company to change the minimum weight on its American boosters to 40 pounds. A marketing executive shot down his request. Evenflo “refused to protect American children by implementing the same standards” as Canada, the investigators wrote. “These executives were willing to spend $30,000 for different labels in the U.S. and Canada to keep the same unsafe 30-pound recommendation for seats sold in the U.S. rather than use the safer 40-pound recommendation.”
Evenflo and its largest competitor, Graco, which is subsidiary of Newell Brands, both raised the minimum weight for their boosters to 40 pounds this year after ProPublica’s investigation and after the subcommittee launched its probe. Three other companies — Baby Trend, Artsana and KidsEmbrace — “continue to make the unsafe recommendation for 30-pound children to use their booster seats,” the investigators wrote. A news release from the subcommittee on Thursday noted that recent moves by Artsana, which sells seats under the Chicco brand, “indicate it may also be following suit in response to this investigation” and raising the minimum weight to 40 pounds.
The February ProPublica report revealed that under the rules that Evenflo created for its side-impact tests, the only way to fail was if the child-sized dummy was thrown onto the floor or the seat broke into pieces. “Rather than directly test for risk of injury and death to children by monitoring stress and contortion of a child-sized crash test dummy, Evenflo gave itself a passing score every time,” the subcommittee investigators wrote. Setting such a low bar “fails to account for the wide range of dangerous outcomes children face in side impact collisions, such as severe spinal cord and neck injuries,” they wrote.
The investigators included what they called “troubling images” from Evenflo test videos, which show the heads and torsos of dummies sprawled far from the protective shell of the booster. And the congressional team highlighted the case of Jillian Brown, a New York girl who weighed 37 pounds and was 5 years old when she was paralyzed in a side-impact crash on Long Island in 2016 while seated in an Evenflo Big Kid booster seat. The investigators quoted ProPublica’s description of Jillian’s crash and explained that she suffered what medical experts call “internal decapitation.” Jillian, whose family settled their lawsuit with Evenflo this fall, relies on a ventilator to breathe.
“Evenflo’s material misrepresentations that its booster seats are side-impact tested for safety — when its self-designed standards are so grossly inadequate — is unfair and deceptive,” the congressional investigators wrote.
Evenflo’s general counsel did not respond to an email seeking comment, but the company in the past has said its seats are safe and effective, that it has been a pioneer in side-impact testing and that Jillian’s injuries were caused by driver error.
The congressional investigators found that Evenflo wasn’t the only company that created a test that was “nearly impossible to fail.”
A Graco test video shows a child-sized dummy in a Graco booster thrown far outside the confines of the seat in what the investigators called a “dangerously contorted position” during a “mild side-impact simulation.” Graco gave the booster seat a passing grade, they wrote. That kind of movement can lead to grave injury or death because the child’s head, neck and spine can strike the door, another passenger or something else in the car.
A Graco spokeswoman on Thursday said that the company has been cooperating with the subcommittee’s investigation and that Graco “stands behind its long record of safety in car seats and extensive testing methods that meet or exceed federal regulation, including booster seats.”
Congressional investigators wrote that Evenflo, Graco, KidsEmbrace, Britax, Dorel Juvenile and Artsana all engaged in deceptive marketing practices.
“KidsEmbrace makes misleading statements to consumers that give the impression that its booster seats are side-impact tested when they are not,” the investigators wrote. “KidsEmbrace admitted in a response letter to the Subcommittee that it does not side-impact test its booster seats at all.”
The congressional investigators also singled out Dorel for its “AirProtect” feature, which the company says minimizes the risk of injury to children in side-impact collisions. “This is unsubstantiated and misleads consumers into thinking the seats are actually safe,” the investigators wrote. In a test video, the head of a child-sized dummy in a Dorel seat hit a simulated door in a side-impact test, the investigators wrote. The AirProtect technology “does not appear to protect a child’s head and neck from a side-impact collision,” they wrote.
Likewise, Britax advertises that its “Side Impact Protection surrounds your child’s head, neck and torso,” a claim that the investigators said “appears designed to mislead consumers.” In a test of a Britax Frontier harness-to-booster combination seat, “the child dummy’s head is violently slammed against the door of the car as the sled decelerates, and the dummy’s head is not protected by Britax’s proprietary technology,” the investigators wrote.
A so-called combination seat like the Frontier is designed to be used with internal harnesses until the child outgrows them, then converted to a booster. A photo of the test in the House report showed a harnessed dummy rather than one in booster mode, but even in that mode, the dummy’s head slams against the door.
Paul Nathanson, a spokesman for Britax, said that “this test was not conducted by Britax and we are unable to discern from where it originated.” The seat, he said, “appears to be one of the original Frontier harness-to-booster seats launched over 10 years ago.” Nathanson said that Britax’s claims about side-impact protection are “substantiated by the product’s thoughtful engineering, testing, and careful selection of components and materials” and that the company evaluates its seats “based on how well they contain the head and minimize head, chest and pelvis acceleration.”
Artsana declined to comment on the report. KidsEmbrace and Dorel did not respond to an email seeking comment. And Baby Trend could not be reached.
A spokeswoman for the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association, the industry’s largest trade group, said it “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.”
Krishnamoorthi and Rep. Katie Porter, a California Democrat, for months have been pressuring NHTSA to enact tougher standards for booster seats. The agency last proposed side-impact tests for children’s car seats in January 2014, but that proposal has languished. Last month, NHTSA proposed raising the minimum weight for boosters to 40 pounds but said it planned to exclude boosters from side-impact testing requirements it is considering.
The congressional investigators castigated NHTSA for failing to regulate boosters “in any meaningful way.”
On Friday, a NHTSA spokesman said that “issuing new side-impact performance standards for child restraint systems is a highly complex process” that involves “extensive development and testing” and an overhaul of many of its performance requirements. The agency has not approved a side-impact dummy that represents how a child over 40 pounds would move in such a crash.
“This process is necessary to ensure an objective and representative performance test, which will save more children’s lives,” the spokesman wrote. “NHTSA looks forward to publishing the final rule for side-impact standards soon.”
In the subcommittee’s Friday letter to the acting administrator of NHTSA, Krishnamoorthi and Porter urged the agency to investigate “dangerous practices” of the booster seat manufacturers. “We have previously addressed NHTSA’s failure to require appropriate booster seat labeling recommendations and side-impact testing through rulemaking,” they wrote. “Due to this regulatory lapse, we believe that NHTSA must now rein in manufacturer’s misconduct through its other enforcement tools.”
Porter, in a news release on Thursday, accused NHTSA of “falling short and failing to hold booster seat manufacturers accountable, which is putting countless kids and families at risk.”
“Getting this right is a matter of life and death,” Porter said.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, said in the news release, “Congress must intervene.”