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CHILDREN’S CAR SEATS | Globe Editorial

Fitting kids into compacts

March 26, 2011

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RECOMMENDATIONS THAT parents keep children in specially designed car seats until older ages — the American Academy of Pediatrics recently decreed that kids up to age 2 should be in rear-facing seats — have improved safety on the roads. But the need for special seats for multiple children had an unintended consequence: Parents buy larger cars because those seats don’t fit easily into smaller cars.

That’s the fault of both the automobile industry, which has failed to contour back seats to maximize space for child seats, and the seat makers, who don’t seem to have given much thought to how parents can fit multiple seats into a modest-sized vehicle. The two should start working together to solve a very real problem.

It’s not just that families are being obliged to drive unnecessarily larger cars — though the cost in gas dollars and carbon emissions is significant — but that many makes of car seats are unwieldy and require tricky installation. So the lack of coordination between car and seat manufacturers means that some parents who think they’re protecting their children are inadvertently putting them at risk in poorly installed seats.

There are ways to make the seats more compact without sacrificing safety. That could mean curbing nonsafety features like a recline function, which can elevate seats to the point of blocking rear-view visibility. Meanwhile, fancy extras like broad headrests and child-size cup holders can eat up horizontal room.

Currently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration mandates that car-seat makers sell seats adaptable to any vehicle. That one-size-fits-all requirement contributes to the difficulty in installation. This mandate needs to be reassessed. Just as Volvo does in overseas markets, car makers should team with children’s car seat designers to make model-specific seats.

Better yet would be seats that are fully integrated with the vehicle and installed by dealers; child seats could replace passenger seats and lock directly to the floor bolts. When the child has outgrown the car seat, the child seat could be replaced with an adult version.

It’s time manufacturers considered child seats and vehicles as an integrated lifesaving system, instead of car seats as a separate — and tenuously attached — accessory.