The Evolution of Child Car Seats in America – 1930s to Today
Obviously, it took a little while for car seat designs in the United States dedicated for children to catch up with the kind of energy and advancements put into cars themselves. Automobiles came on the scene shortly after the turn of the century in 1908 with the Ford Motor Company’s Model T, which was one of the first mass produced cars. Then it took nearly three decades, depending on who you source, for car seats for kids to even come on the scene.
It’s not surprising either that the main function of the first child car seats was specifically to help give little ones better visibility, rather than a safe passage. In fact, many of us who were kids and who grew up in the 60s and 70s don’t even remember using car seats, since they weren’t specifically required by law back then. One estimate we found on a Disney site claimed that “only half of all children under the age of four were riding in car seats” by 1984. Today, getting a properly sized child car seat is nearly as tedious as getting tailored for a new suit. Parents must now obviously take this task seriously, because it’s the law.
“Anymore, a parent can be arrested and charged with criminally negligent homicide for not providing their children with properly fitted, mandatory car safety seats, if the parent gets in a car accident and the child dies,” said personal injury lawyer Michael Maggiano of the law firm Maggiano, DiGirolamo & Lizzi P.C. “In fact, manufacturers of child car safety seats are held to incredible safety standards, because they can be held liable for defective products if they don’t.”
A Timeline of Child Occupant and Seat Safety Advancements
Thanks to the efforts of Safe Ride News editor Deborah D. Stewart, we now have a pretty accurate chronicling of the safety advancements made in the United States from 1965 to 2009. Some of the dates in the following list are approximate estimates, and several entries have been shortened or omitted here to make the list more manageable to read (for the full list, click here):
- 1965 – Physicians for Automotive Safety (PAS) is formed and pickets the New York Auto Show; protesting the lack of safety standards for vehicle occupants.
- 1968 – Ford designs its first Tot-Guard child restraint for collision protection. General Motors (GM) later comes out with its competing Love Seat for toddlers; followed by the first rear-facing GM infant Love Seat; and later the Bobby Mac convertible seat (incorporating both rear- and forward-facing capability).
- 1971 – PAS publishes and circulates its first pamphlet on child passenger protection, “Don’t Risk Your Child’s Life.” Action for Child Transportation Safety is created as a parent-citizen advocacy group to promote child passenger safety (CPS), education, and higher standards for children’s car (Disbanded 1982). The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) unveils the first federal standard for child seating systems (FMVSS 213); requirements didn’t include crash tests, but did mandate use of a safety belt to restrain the car seat.
- 1972 – Consumer Reports publishes an article basically stating that most car seats that passed FMVSS 213 could not withstand crash tests.
- 1977 – Federal regulators establish the first standard for school buses, including body durability, roll-over protection, seat spacing, padded flexible seatbacks with higher backs, but no seat belts.
- 1978 – PAS produces film “Don’t Risk Your Child’s Life” to educated parents about child passenger safety. Tennessee passes the first child passenger safety law requiring parents to put their infants and young children in safety seats. This law becomes the current federal standard (FMVSS 213) in 1979. Nashville, TN also holds the first National Child Passenger Safety Conference.
- 1981 – The Federal government updates standard FMVSS 213-80 becoming effective on 1/1/81; includes rear-facing infant restraints, car beds, and forward-facing restraints for children under 50 lbs.; mandatory 30 m.p.h. frontal crash test; requires buckle release force, so kids couldn’t depress release; special labeling and instruction criteria.
- 1982-3 – The National Child Passenger Safety Association (NCPSA) is founded (disbanded circa 1988). Several child passenger safety associations are also formed, like the Los Angeles Area Child Passenger Safety Association, which later morphed into SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A.
- 1984 – The NHTSA requests states to create safety belt laws that will cover adults and children over the ages already covered by child passenger safety laws in place. The NHTSA also announces the required installation of air bags in vehicles, if strict laws are not adopted by a majority of states by 1990. The Child Restraint Task Force of the Society of Automotive Engineers begins its initiative on design criteria to make child restraints, vehicle seats, and belts fit together. The first presidential proclamation (under Ronald Regan) issued on child passenger protection, titled “National Child Passenger Safety Awareness Day.”
- 1985 – Every state, including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, has child seat safety laws in place, but many with limitations. An NHTSA survey finds misuse of child safety seats at 65 percent.
- 1986 – The NHTSA study indicates that when child safety seats are correctly used they are 71 percent effective at reducing fatalities and 67 percent effective at reducing serious injuries. If the restraints were only partially misused, the effectiveness would be reduced by 44 percent.
- 1987 – Nationwide survey of 19 cities shows 80 percent usage of child safety seats for children under the age of 5. Also, the first study of fetal trauma in crashes conducted by Agran P, Dunkeld, Winn D. in Annals of Emergency Medicine (1987; 16:12, 1355-1358) is conducted.
- 1989 – The National SAFE KIDS Campaign created. Also, national agencies encourage state and local police to enforce child restraint laws. Shoulder seat belts become required equipment for rear seats of new passenger vehicles.
- 1990 – The Task Force of the Society of Automotive Engineers issued recommendations for practice (J1819) covering various aspects of child restraint, vehicle seat, and safety belt design to promote compatibility. The national, non-profit advocacy organization SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A. (formerly Los Angeles Area Child Passenger Safety Association) formed for child and family safety in cars.
- 1991 – The SAE Task Force issued a warning about the risks of serious injury from passenger air bags to infants riding in rear-facing child restraints.
- 1992 – Chrysler introduces the optional built-in child restraint system for toddlers and belt-positioning-booster in its mini-vans. Other manufacturers follow suit in the next few years.
- 1993 – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued the first public health warning on interaction between air bags and rear-facing child restraints.
- 1995 – The NHTSA calls for the establishment of a Blue Ribbon Panel on child restraint and vehicle compatibility. It’s the first time a multi-faceted group of motor vehicle and child restraint manufacturers and practitioners/advocates convened to resolve problems of compatibility of child restraint system products. Also, marks the first year a child dies from being struck by a passenger air bag, while riding in a rear-facing seat. The NHTSA, National Transportation Safety Board, and many other advocacy groups call for campaigns to raise awareness of hazards of air bags to children.
- 1996 – The death toll of infants and children killed from contact with a passenger air bags reaches 21. The NHTSA offers amendments to air bag requirements, including additional warning labels and cut-off switch options for vehicles without “smart” air bags.
- 1997 – The NHTSA implements a national training program to certify child passenger safety technicians and instructors.
- 1998 – Congress passes “Dana’s Bill” to send $30 million to states for technical training, inspection stations, and child safety seat distribution over four years.
- 1999 – Safe Ride News Publications releases its first edition of “Tethering Child Restraints.”
- 2000 – Washington state passes first booster seat laws for children over 40 pounds; California follows suit. Both laws take effect in 2002.
- 2002 – Congress passes “Anton’s Law,” which requires development of booster seat testing requirements and making a lap-shoulder belt standard in center of rear seat.
- 2005 – The National SAFE KIDS Campaign becomes Safe Kids Worldwide.
- 2006 – Safe Ride News celebrates the 25th anniversary of the national Child Passenger Safety newsletter.
- 2008 – Marks a significant revision to federal school bus seating standard (FMVSS 222), which required small buses (under 10,000 lbs.) to have lap-shoulder belts and other testing criteria. Higher-back seats are required for all new buses.
A Glance Back At Child Safety Seats – From 1930s to Modern Day
The very first child safety seats didn’t really provide any safety per se. Their main function was more for containment and preventing young ones from moving around in the motor vehicle cabin and to give them a boost up, so they could look out the windows to keep them occupied. It took nearly 30 years, well into the 1960s before child safety seats were actually considered safe devices, and began to undergo rigorous testing and manufacturing standards to meet federal laws and guidelines. Let’s take a quick glance back at some of these earlier child safety seats in the United States.
One of the earliest known mass produced child safety seats was manufactured by the Bunny Bear Company in 1933. The main functions provided by these seats were containment of the child and raising the child to a level so they could see out the vehicle window.
In the 1940s, child car safety seats were still fairly primitive and made with metal frames and canvas seats. They incorporated the same over-the-seat metal hooks as their predecessors.
Here’s one of the first advertisements for the Toidey Company’s “Ridin’Hi AUTOSEAT with TRAFFIC SAFETY BELT” from the 1950s. The ad claims the infant rides comfortably and safely thanks to the wedge anchors that secure it to the front or back seat. We doubt the seat met any kind of standards or underwent any kind of regulated testing. The fact remains, these child safety seats still not only fulfilled their purpose to contain the children, but they also sometimes doubled as high chairs on top of existing chairs inside the home as well.
In 1968, the Ford Motor Company came out with the “Tot-Guard,” which was a plastic-molded chair that had a cushion positioned to catch the child’s face in the event of a crash.
But, even by 1969 when Sears advertised this “Steel Travel Platform,” we can see that safety was still an ongoing process. Basically, the device was a steel plate covered by a vinyl foam pad that infants and toddlers could lay, sleep, or play on in the backset of the car.
Finally, in the 1970s the NHTSA began issuing child safety seat standards and regulations, such as all seats needing to be anchored by the vehicle’s seat belts, include a harness to restrain the child, but there was still no real impact crash testing at this point. GM also came out with their “Love Seats,” which for the first time came in multiple size models to choose from – one for infants and one for bigger children. Both of the Love Seat models secured with a regular car seat belt. The child’s model faced forward, while the infant model faced towards the rear.
By 1985, federal laws required children under certain ages to ride in a car safety seat. Here’s a picture of the Astroseat VI Car Seat believed to be made by the International Manufacturing Co., which featured a pull-down harness and protective upholstery to comfortably cradle the child.
The 1990s saw the advent of the ISOfix anchors also now known as the LATCH (Lower Anchors & Tether for Children) system with a top tether point and lower anchor points for increased stability.
The federal government didn’t require the LATCH system in all vehicles until the 2003 vehicle models came out. Vehicles that came out prior to the LATCH system law taking effect could be retrofitted to accept the LATCH system compliant child safety seats.
Our current requirements call for a five-point harness system, which provides a snug fit, restrains the child, and combined with the LATCH system, child safety seats have never been safer. We also have state regulations in every state that have minimum standards and requirements for appropriate age, weight, and size of each child safety seat; pass impact crash testing; and manufacturer’s expiration date. All child safety car seats must meet the minimum safety standards, but many models go above and beyond what current laws require. As a matter of fact, the choices and options for our modern child car seats are so numerous now that the research and selection process can be even more daunting than buying an actual car. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
Going Forward With Child Safety Seats
All that remains for a modern child care safety seat to provide little or no protection is for the parent to be uninformed, for them to improperly attach the child safety seat in their vehicles, or fail to secure their child in a safety seat. Sadly, we still don’t have 100 percent child safety seat usage in the United States. In fact, the leading cause of death of young children today is a motor vehicle accident. And, what many parents don’t know is that they can lower the risk of harm to their child, if they just leave their children in their car safety seats a little longer than what is considered necessary. Thankfully, there’s still a plethora of child seat safety advocacy groups out there to ensure that more research and development continue to make better and safer child car seats, such as The Bridgespan Group, Safe Kids Worldwide, Safe Ride 4 Kids, Child Restraint Evaluation Program (CREP), and ADAC (the German Automobile Club) to name a few. If you need assistance having your child safety seat installed or the fit inspected by a professional, check with the Safe Kids Child Passenger Safety Technician in your area.