Come Ride with Me, Baby

Auto safety: A new car seat idea has safety advocates throwing tantrums.

by Photo by: John B. Carnett

RIDIN' SHOTGUN
Right now, a baby in the front seat is the epitome of irresponsibility. Will XSCi's Rear Facing Infant Car Seat change that?
Photo by: John B. Carnett

How controversial is the new car seat from Xportation Safety Concepts Inc. (XSCi)? When a representative
of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) heard that we had no editorial position on the thing, he was livid. "Shame on you!" thundered Tim Hurd. "Why wouldn't you take a position against injuring or possibly killing a child?"

The roots of this controversy go back to the mid-1990s, when it became clear that airbags could harm infants. Since then, all car seats have been designed for use in rear seats. Problem is, some 31,000 drivers crash each year because of distractions from passengers -- such as an infant crying in the back. With this in mind, XSCi has designed what it claims is an airbag-compatible car seat. The seat consists of a removable infant cradle shock-mounted to a frame that slopes up and outward like a helmet. Foam is said to absorb crash energy and transfer it to the automobile seat cushion. Independent tests show the seat exceeds the federal government's stringent Child Restraint Air Bag Interaction criteria.

But Werner Freitag, a child safety engineer with Consumers Union, found demonstrations of the product "very disconcerting . . . The airbag gases around the dummy's head. That's OK for a dummy, but not for children."
"We don't believe that's a concern," counters XSCi engineering manager Dave Clement, who says he would cheerfully place his own daughter up front in the seat.

He'd better hold off. Current law requires all safety seats to carry labels stating they should not be placed in front of airbags. NHTSA threatens to raise "serious legal questions" should XSCi publicly suggest theirs be used up front.

"It's going to be a tough road," Clements admits.