'Consumer Reports' Alters Testing Policies

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In January, Consumer Reports announced it was withdrawing the results of a test on the safety of infant car seats because of questions about the reliability of its data. The magazine says it will change the way it tests new products.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Earlier this year, Consumer Reports published an article warning that many of the infant car seats sold in this country had failed a safety test. And it called on the government to recall some of the seats. But within days, the magazine was forced to retract that story because of problems with its data. But today, the company published a report on the incident.

NPR's Jim Zarroli reports that it said a miscommunication with one of its outside testing labs had caused the error.

JIM ZARROLI: The retraction of the article was a big embarrassment for Consumer Reports, which prides itself on rigorous testing of all kinds of consumer products. It asked two outside experts to review the numbers and explain what had happened. The findings will be published in the magazine's May issue. Jim Guest is the president of Consumers Union, which publishes the magazine. Guest said there was a misunderstanding between the magazine and the outside lab it hired to conduct the tests.

Mr. JIM GUEST (President, Consumers Union): We thought the tests were being run to simulate a crash of the car going 38 miles an hour and slamming into another car. The way it turned out, the test made at a much higher speed.

ZARROLI: That meant the damage to the car seats was much greater that it should have been. Nicole Nason, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said the error was incredibly serious.

Ms. NICOLE NASON (Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration): When you double the speed of a test that your claiming to do, then you represent to the public that you're operating on a much slower speed, you're obviously misleading people into thinking that their seats aren't safe, which is exactly what happened in this situation.

ZARROLI: But Nason said the magazine deserves credit for removing the article from its Web site as soon as it was told about the errors. The magazine said it won't publish new data about car seat safety inside impact crashes, because safety experts can agree about how to conduct such tests. Jim Guest said the magazine will consult more often with outside experts including industry and government officials when it designs complicated tests.

Mr. GUEST: We've done it before. We're just going to be a little more careful to do it more often when we get into these difficult situations.

ZARROLI: Guest also said that when it uses outside labs to test products, it will hire independent experts to review their work. Among the car seats that the magazine originally cited as dangerous was one made by Ohio-based Evenflo. Today, the company commended the magazine for withdrawing the article and removing its unsafe rating.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.

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