Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Car Seats Need to be Simpler

Car seats are too complicated. This is the conclusion I've come to. Most people do not install their car seats correctly. The ones that are aware of this demand to have their seats checked by a professional, but often the "professionals" are not certified either. Most people who do not install their seats correctly don't know that they haven't installed them correctly. On top of that, most people don't use the car seat properly once it's installed, compounding the problem.

All of this leads me to just one conclusion: car seats need to be simpler. People look forward to their kids growing out of car seats because they understand seat belts and how to use them, and they're pretty darn straightforward. We don't want to have to mess with LATCH, belt paths, chest clips, expiration dates, weight and height limits, cleaning instructions, and rules of installation and after-market accessories, especially when so many of the rules vary from car seat to car seat.

When something is simple, relatively foolproof, there's a much greater chance that it will be done correctly. Computers have gotten pretty easy to set up, because each cable can only fit into one slot, and everything else has a standard connector. TVs and their corresponding attachments (DVD players, for example) have color-coded cables so you know where to stick what. Batteries are standard sizes and shapes and are clearly marked. The nozzle on a given gasoline pump will fit in any given standard gasoline-powered car. Indeed, most safety-related features on a car are made to be relatively foolproof. The gears are always in the same order on an automatic transmission shifter (P, R, N, D...) and generally the same on manual shifters as well. The turn signal lever is on the left side of the steering wheel. The gas pedal is on the right, the brake is on the left (or in the middle, with the clutch to the far left if you have one).

My point is, companies try to make things easy on consumers, particularly because consumers are well known not to read manuals, to forget information they are presented with, and not to be willing to learn too many new things. And, let's face it, some consumers are not capable of understanding or remembering complicated instructions.

Why, then, are car seats not simpler? Why, with this item we trust the safety of our children to, are we expected to learn lists of rules to follow? Why is it so easy to screw it up? We are told to trust our common sense in so many things regarding child-rearing, and we have plenty of help around for everything else - doctors for help with illness and accidents, teachers to help our kids learn things we don't necessarily know ourselves. But car seat technicians aren't so easy to find, and, frankly, many people don't know they should seek one out. I mean, it looks easy enough: hook this thingy to that thingy, then put that tab into that clip. And, really, it should be that obvious, and it should be that simple.

Car seat technology has come so far. A lot of engineering goes into the design of a single child restraint. We want our children to be safe, and we want to be able to trust car companies, car seat manufacturers, and government agencies to have our kids' safety high on their list of priorities.

So, to those agencies and companies: let's take the next step in child restraint technology. Let's make it easy and foolproof to purchase, install, and use the right car seat for the right child in the right manner. What if the harness tightened automatically, much the way a seat belt retracts automatically after we buckle it and then auto-locks in a sudden stop? Couldn't car seats have standard connectors that fit all cars the same way? (LATCH attempts this, but research has found that LATCH doesn't always actually make the installation more correct or simpler, because car manufacturers don't put them all in the same place or make them easily accessible.) There must be a way to properly position the harness straps without the infamous chest clip; they do it in Europe, after all! Shouldn't we more clearly and honestly display weight and height rules for a given car seat? Shouldn't we standardize car seat laws across the 50 states to more closely match the recommendations of the NHTSA, the AAP, and car seat safety experts? Can we make good car seats more affordable? Let's make crash test data more accessible to the consumer, in the same way a consumer can easily see the crash test ratings for the car they want to purchase. Is there a way to build the car with kid-sized safety restraints built-in? A few models out there have build-in booster seats; could we take that to the next level and include 5-point harnesses for older toddlers and younger children?

What other ideas do you have for improving the usability of car seats? What can we encourage manufacturers and engineers to work on next, so that proper use of car seats is more universal and the end goal, of kids being safer in cars, is better met?

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