Questions Raised about How Child Seats Are Tested

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Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a national nonprofit public-interest organization, weighs in on testing methods used for guaging the safety of children's car seats.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Many of us, parents or not, trust that our child car seats on the market have been properly tested, often through simulated car crashes in labs. Earlier this month, Consumer Reports published an alarming finding that 10 out of 12 infant child seats failed their test. But within two weeks, the magazine withdrew that report citing problems with the testing.

In an op-ed in yesterday's New York Times, Joan Claybrook argued that while the mistake is a credibility nightmare for Consumer Reports, it should be a wakeup call for the federal government. It's their jobs, she says, to test for safety and so far they've failed to act.

Joan Claybrook is president of Public Citizen, a national nonprofit public-interest organization. She joins now by phone from her office here in Washington, D.C. Good to speak with you today.

Ms. JOAN CLAYBROOK (President, Public Citizen): Thank you.

CONAN: And we should point out, you have some experience with both of these organizations. You were administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and later served on the board of Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports. And you criticized the Consumer Reports testing methods in the op-ed. In fact, said their alarming findings should have tipped them off.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: Well, that's correct. The fact is that Consumer Reports does not do crash testing on a regular basis. It uses the government information and uses insurance information from crash tests. And it does the minimal ones itself, but it contracts out for the testing on infant and child restraints.

And there was obviously some confusion between the Consumer Reports and the lab that they use, Calspan. And as a result, the speed of the test was twice what the government normally uses. So then these alarming results came in, and instead of saying, gee, we better get some other expert advice, particularly since they don't have their own…

CONAN: In-house expert.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: …in-house expert and test engineers, it went ahead and published the results. And they were wrong.

CONAN: Yeah. A whopper of a mistake, you say. But as it often does, you say, Consumer Reports was attempting to fill a void in the government's work. What did you mean by that?

Ms. CLAYBROOK: Well, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration since 1978 has been conducting crash tests and providing the information to consumers. And this program started so long ago you would think that they would have it fully in hand. But the fact is that it's very much behind the times, and in fact Australia and Japanese and the Europeans, which have copied the American program, are now far ahead of it.

And there are a number of tests that they don't do that should be done. They don't test for survivability in a rollover crash, and rollovers are really important. They kill about a third of all occupants that are killed on the highway. So it's a very serious type of crash.

It doesn't test for vehicle structure in frontal crashes. That's an off center type of crash is really the best test for that, and the Europeans do this regularly. They don't have a rear impact test for fuel tank vulnerability or seat back strength.

And they don't test for pedestrian protection as these other countries do. They don't test for compatibility between cars and truck or SUVs. And they don't test for child and infant restraints either in front or side tests for consumer information.

CONAN: Can I ask a dumb question?

Ms. CLAYBROOK: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Why not?

Ms. CLAYBROOK: Well, they've never put the money into it. They've never made it a priority. Recently, Senator DeWine, Mike DeWine of Ohio - who's just lost the election - who was very interested in this, put almost double the amount of money that is allocated to this program in a Senate bill. And then in the end they got about a $3 million increase. They did have $7 million, now they 10 million do this testing.

But they never asked for that. And he also insisted that the information that they do secure be put on the price sticker and in the auto dealer showroom, and that started this November. So he made two giant leaps with just one piece of legislation in this program. But the agency has been very much behind the times.

The secretary of transportation, the new Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters, did acknowledge recently this January - just this month - that they needed to expand and improve the testing that they do, although they - she said they don't intend to test for side/head injury, nor for rollover protection when the roof crushes in and so on.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: But she did acknowledge some of the other matters - items that I mentioned - should be tested. So this program is very much out of date. It's been very much under funded, has not been a priority of the agency.

CONAN: And as that goes on, I mean, is there any way for a consumer to know that none of these tests have been done?

Ms. CLAYBROOK: No. No, there's nothing published that says that until very recently, when Mary Peters did put out a public document in which she said where they're going to do some improvements and what things they're not going to do.

So - and some of my items are not on that list yet, either, like child restraint testing and compatibility between larger and smaller vehicles and pedestrian crash tests.

CONAN: Because you see all of these ads for various vehicles touting their performance on government-sponsored crash tests.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: That's right. And that's a really urgent reason for these tests to be improved. Even the existing tests are out of date. They're not done at a high enough speed. The speed should be increased.

And also - particularly since the speed limit has increased in the last 15, 20 years. And also - for example, in the test for SUVs they use a dolly, as it's called, or a simulated car that is much too small and inadequate to test an SUV.

So even their existing program that they do have needs to be updated.

CONAN: As you also point out in your story, in your op ed, none of this excuses Consumer Reports.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: Absolutely not. No. It does not. And my concern is that this is a magazine that people rely on a great deal. It's read assiduously. There are four to five million subscribers.

And it goes way beyond that because people talk about the results. Dealers and retailers are the loser (unintelligible) sales because of it. And, you know, it's been the gold standard for a long time. And…

CONAN: Because it's non-partisan. It's independent. It doesn't take advertising. It is the gold standard, as you said.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: That's correct. And so it's - you know, that makes it more disturbing. But, you know, these kinds of mistakes are a wake-up call. And the magazine has apologized. And it said that it's going to create a committee to give advice on how to handle these things better in the future.

CONAN: And is it going to go ahead and do all of those other kinds of crash tests that you'd like the government to do?

Ms. CLAYBROOK: No, it won't for two reasons. One is because it's very expensive to do these crash tests. They're probably $20,000 each. And so to get all the make and models is very difficult, very expensive.

And secondly - excuse me - because some of these tests haven't even actually been created, a standardized government test. And so they'd have to make up the test.

And then in addition, they don't have the crash test facilities. So they would have to contract all of that out and actually hire some expertise within the Consumer Reports.

So it would be quite a jump - huge jump - for them to do all these tests themselves. I actually believe that the way the program should run - the government program - is that the agency should design the test and the manufacturers should conduct them so that the information is readily available the day new car's in the market. And then the government can double check them and make sure that they're accurate.

But these companies do these tests, anyway, and they just don't make it available to the public.

CONAN: Hm.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: So we'd like to see these - this information come out in a very timely way, not wait until the government tests are all done - which often is half way into the new model year or longer - so that the companies would do the test set by the government. And then the government would enforce or double check them, and then analysis companies mistested them.

CONAN: But for the moment, the only way these tests are going to get done so the public can find out about them is if the government does them.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: If the government does this, or if they issue a regulation saying they want - and they have the authority to do this already in the statute - that they want the companies to do it. And here's the tests that they should conduct. And they should make it available the day the first car comes off the production line.

CONAN: Joan Claybrook, thanks very much for your time. We appreciate it.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: Thank you.

CONAN: Joan Claybrook is president of Public Citizen, based in Washington, D.C. And coming up, the demise of Barbaro.

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