Are car seat regulations forcing families into bigger cars?

A weekend editorial in the Boston Globe (Boston.com) put into writing something that Michael and I frequently talk about – families with more than two kids in carseats (or even boosters) have to have larger, less fuel efficient, cars just to fit them in properly.

From the Boston Globe:

“RECOMMENDATIONS THAT parents keep children in specially designed car seats until older ages — the American Academy of Pediatrics recently decreed that kids up to age 2 should be in rear-facing seats — have improved safety on the roads. But the need for special seats for multiple children had an unintended consequence: Parents buy larger cars because those seats don’t fit easily into smaller cars.”

“That’s the fault of both the automobile industry, which has failed to contour back seats to maximize space for child seats, and the seat makers, who don’t seem to have given much thought to how parents can fit multiple seats into a modest-sized vehicle. The two should start working together to solve a very real problem.”

“It’s not just that families are being obliged to drive unnecessarily larger cars — though the cost in gas dollars and carbon emissions is significant — but that many makes of car seats are unwieldy and require tricky installation. So the lack of coordination between car and seat manufacturers means that some parents who think they’re protecting their children are inadvertently putting them at risk in poorly installed seats.”

(To head off one inevitable argument, I understand it is the parents’ choice to have two or more kids. However, the manufacturers can make smart changes to help smaller cars accommodate the required seats.)

The author has suggestions to help solve this problem. I agree with some of his points but then question others. See what you think. The author’s suggestions are:

  • Curb nonsafety features like reclining functions that can elevate seats where they block rear-view visibility. (I agree! And would add just more closely examine the shapes of the backseat. My mother’s car has a crazy concave back and puffed up bottom where the carseats will not sit flat. She had to by a very expensive seat and then roll mats under it to make it flat on the seat.)
  • Reduce broad headrests and child-size cup holders that eat up backseat space. (I completely agree. I would rather fit the seats than have cute features. Plus, often the carseats and boosters have cup holders.)
  • Car designers should work with carseat makers to create seats specific to that car. He says Volvo already does this overseas. (Now I see a couple of problems with this:  A. probably more expensive and B. you won’t be able swap between cars.)
  • Or he suggests the carseat could be fully integrated and literally replace the passenger seats until they grow. (Again not a bad idea but let’s think it through some more – we know you change carseats at least twice (rear facing bucket seat to a bigger upright front-facing seat and then go into a booster probably. So would you have to swap three times with the car makers seat? How pricey would that be?)

Michael is currently choosing a new company car. His choices range from a very fuel-efficient, tiny car that I’m not sure you could fit two carseats in to a bigger crossover that I think we could fit all three in but is less fuel efficient. He only has to order the car online but we are going to a lot to make sure we can fit two boosters and a carseat in the back. We have to know that in an emergency (or if my car breaks down) we have a second car that can carry our whole family.

I know carseats and boosters save lives, and I feel strongly about keeping my kids in them as long as possible, but I also think the car manufacturers should examine how they can get families with more than two kids into smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. But then again, maybe the manufacturers want families to have to choose the larger, more expensive cars.

What do you think: Have you had problems fitting your carseat in your backseat? What is the smallest car you have been able to get carseats into? Is the problem the shape of the backseat, the distance between the back and front seat or the distance across the seats? (We had problem in Michael’s Pontiac Grand Am getting the rear facing seat in when Rose was a baby. You had to pull the front seat way far forward.)

What would you suggest the car manufacturer’s do to make it easier to fit required carseats in smaller cars?

Would you choose a smaller family car if you could comfortably fit the carseats and boosters in or would you still choose a larger car? (There is something to be said for kids not being able to touch each other in the captain’s seats in minivans. I love they can’t get at each other while I am driving.)

Do you think the car manufacturers want families to have to choose a larger, more expensive vehicle?

– Theresa Walsh Giarrusso, ajc.com Momania

37 comments Add your comment

madmommy

March 28th, 2011
7:23 am

While I only have the one child, we both drive smaller cars and when we bought our cars, we weren’t thinking carseats. However, Babies R Us will gladly let you take any carseat to your car to check installment and they will also let you test the strollers as well. I find more issues with seat shape than shape as I couldn’t get my carseat into a friends Rav4 and this was a car I was looking at getting next. Maybe Consumer Reports can add this into new car reviews as many people would be interested in this info.

I will keep driving little cars for as long as possible since we only have the one and I don’t see the need for a larger car, but I can see the added comfort they provide. BTW, my little one has always been so tiny she might be in a seat until she’s 12. haha Poor thing.

BusyMom

March 28th, 2011
7:48 am

I have 2 in boosters and 2 in car seats, and a minivan is really the best option. The older ones in the back have to be able to walk through the middle to get out, so there are lots of vehicles with third rows that don’t work. Even car salesmen don’t understand that you can’t lean a middle seat forward with a car seat in it to allow people out of the back.

I do like cup holders in the back because the ones on the boosters are shallow. Plus, when they outgrow boosters the older kids could use a cup holder.

MomOf2Girls

March 28th, 2011
8:22 am

We were more concerned with the safety rating of the cars than gas mileage when our kids were very small. Of course, gas was much cheaper, and fuel efficiency wasn’t as much of a concern. The vehicles we chose (Volvos, then the Odyssey and CR-V we have today) easily fit the seats we needed.

Although gas is more expensive now, I think I would still take into consideration how safe that little “pregnant rollerskate” is going to be in a major accident when choosing a family vehicle. I do agree that there are some larger vehicles where the seat shape is problematic, but as far as vehicle size – I just can’t imagine someone who has 3 kids in seats thinking they can cram them all into a Ford Focus (to pick a small car at random) and be safe, let alone comfortable, even if the seats fit, when involved in an accident. Something we could walk away from the Odyssey after could be devastating to the Focus.

Just another variable to throw into the mix :-)

motherjanegoose

March 28th, 2011
8:34 am

@ busy…4 in car seats? You earned your title and I tip my hat to you :).

We had a Mazda GLC with our son…a tiny car but it got 40 miles to the gallon!
When daughter came along, we had a Mazda Protege, similar gas mileage, a little bigger.

We never had two in car seats at once.

I would love to be able to pick out a company car…oops…I did…I bought and paid for it for myself…a Chevy Malibu…hahaha~ I have to also consider how much the insurance will be each month and with two kids in college, that IS something to consider. The insurance on my daughter’s 2002 Civic is more than my 2010 Mailibu. She has not had any tickets. Get ready for this BusyMom…4 driving on your insurance is something you may need to save for.

BusyMom

March 28th, 2011
8:42 am

I can’t even begin to think about insurance and college! I just got them all out of diapers! The oldest is six and could get out of the booster, but she’s in the third row and the seat in front of her is so tall that it helps her to be elevated a little. The older two can strap themselves, so that is a huge help.

mom of two

March 28th, 2011
9:05 am

I only have 2 kids, but frequently had my nephew in the car when all 3 kids were in seats. My baby was in a rear facing seat, my nephew in a regular seat and my older child in a booster. While it was a tight fit, they all sat in the back of my 1994 Mazda Protege. When I bought a 2005 Toyota Camry, they all easily fit in the back seat. No SUV or other gas guzzler required!

My hubby had a hybrid Mercury Mariner. Again, great gas mileage, but all 3 kids could fit in the back in their seats (the back seat was slightly bigger than the Protege, but smaller than the Camry.)

A friend of mine had a 4-door Mercury Sable and it was terrible. We couldn’t take her car if we were going somewhere together. I don’t know if the car seats would fit side-by-side since we never got that far. The door openings were so awkward, we couldn’t even get the car seats (backward or forward facing) in the car – on a 4-door!

As for vehicle safety, bigger does not always equal better. Many of the minivans have dismal safety ratings – much worse than the cars I’ve driven. SUVs are not safer just because they’re bigger. Their high center of gravity can make them much more dangerous – especially for rollovers. Ford Explorers come to mind…

Amy in the ATL

March 28th, 2011
9:08 am

Good topic. And I’ll go one step forward….why don’t car manufacturers targeting families make adjustable carseats for the back rows that can accommodate various size people? I’m thinking of a seat that rises up and/or seatbelts that adjust down and can allow an optional 5 pt harness as well. Seems like that would allow for more efficient (and comfortable) use of interior space, regardless of vehicle size. And it would help alleviate some confusion on proper carseat installation, which can be tricky.

Amy in the ATL

March 28th, 2011
9:12 am

And as far as car size to safety, bigger is definitely not always better. It really depends on the frame. I walked away without a scratch from a very bad driver-side collision (got rammed by a taxi running a red light) that absolutely totalled my VW Jetta…..but I didn’t even have a scratch on me since the door frame was reinforced and protected me. A friend of mine in a similar accident in an SUV rolled over and crushed her ankle.

BusyMom

March 28th, 2011
9:18 am

@Amy in the ATL…good point about some kind of adjustable seat. When my 2nd child was still in a carseat (before he moved to booster) he had to sit in the middle of the third row with my oldest right next to him because the Latch system was only in the middle, not on the sides. Poor planning on their part, I thought. How hard would it be to put the Latch system on the sides?

AT

March 28th, 2011
9:27 am

We just got a new car seat for our daughter who outgrew her infant seat. It fits in the back, center of my Acura TSX but both front seats have to be really forward. I’m short so I can drive but my husband can’t fit in the front seat with the car seat back there. We will eventually move the car seat to the side so my husband can drive (but then nobody will be able to sit in the front passanger seat). Definitely inconvenient and we did not expect that a convertible seat would not fit in this car.

DB

March 28th, 2011
9:28 am

When we had our first baby, the car seat absolutely did not fit in the car at all — well, it was a DINK Porsche , and the backseats were so contoured that the car seat couldn’t sit straight, no matter how much padding was added. (Of course, those backseats are too small for anyone over 3 ft, anyway!) Porsche used to have a car seat custom-made for their cars, but it was rejected by the U.S. as unsafe. So I gave up my Porsche and started driving my husband’s Accord (I still tease him that getting me pregnant was a clever ploy on his part to get the Porsche!) When the second child came along, we went about a month, and then quickly scurried over to a mini-van, where we have been ever since (this was before SUV’s were invented!) We quickly got used to the roomier inside, and found it difficult to go smaller, even in a SUV (and when the kids started growing, especially the boy, we had to be careful to allow for sufficient leg room).

You’ve got a good point — how do people with more than two kids in car seat/boosters manage with the little backseats some of these cars have?

deidre_NC

March 28th, 2011
9:28 am

i rented a mini van one time that had built in car seat. it was for that in-between stage, you would have to have the rear facing one and the booster your self. that was before they had to stay in rear facing one for 2 years, but still there quite a few years that the ‘middle’ stage is used. i think they could probably make that built in car seat turn into a booster, then you would only have to buy the rear facing one. when the car seat was down it was a very confortable seat for an adult, so they really could build in 3 car seats into that back..or more if there is that 3rd seat in a van. i cant remember what model that van was :( but it was several years ago.

DB

March 28th, 2011
9:33 am

@deidre_NC: I think the Dodge Caravan’s back in 2004-2006 had built in car seats, as well as the Dodge Journey. Very convenient, but I think you’d still need a car/booster seat if the child rode in any other car (i.e., Grandma’s) other than yours.

sladersaan

March 28th, 2011
9:51 am

disclaimer here..I am a man. My wife and I argue about the necessity of car seats all the time, especially when they get older. We have 3 (all 3 and under) in car seats and I strongly feel the safety agenda being pushed is a ploy by car seat manufacturers to create a new market. I wonder how many of these safety “guru’s” use their cell phone when they drive?

Me

March 28th, 2011
9:56 am

Stating that car companies should build economical vehicles for the sake of fitting a car seat is akin to stating that the makers of diapers and formula do so more economically so that the end cost is lower. The decision is have kids is one that should include discussions revolving around not only the “basics” but should also include items such as transportation, etc. If you cannot “afford” the kids then make the sane choice and don’t have them. I love mine to death but never once thought or expected companies to re-do their product strategy just to accomodate parents.

MomOf2Girls

March 28th, 2011
10:00 am

It sounds like I wasn’t clear in my post – sorry for the confusion. I didn’t mean to imply that bigger is always safer, but I do think that the very small cars are inherently more dangerous as a whole in a major accident due to the laws of physics.

My point was that I would think people with small children would be more inclined to look at safety than gas mileage, and in general, the safer vehicles tend to be larger.

gtmom

March 28th, 2011
10:01 am

Bigger is not better!!!! My job is to test structural integrity of aircraft. At one time, it was automobiles. I wonder where people got this idea that a big vehicle is safer than a larger one. It all has to do with materials being used. I can design something huge out of plastic and something very small with high strength steel (here are some numbers 30 psi vs 240 psi).. The steel structure can withstand higher impacts. So please look at data… Lots of small cars have steel side impacts in their doors… it is cheaper to build out of plastic…. And when looking at car seats.. look at sunshine kids Radian… a steel car seat. remember the structural failure with the parking deck downtown Atlanta some years back. This car seat was in a car on the bottom floor. You couldn’t tell that a floor of cars had fallen on top it while nothing else around it was destroyed beyond recognition. Also, you can fit three Radians in the back seat of a small SAFE vehicle.

So when it comes to car safety “bigger is not better.” Study crash data… my smaller compact car is safer than my sister’s huge SUV… Most bigger vehicles has a lot of plastic (except the Army type vehicles – Hummers…etc.. but then it is so heavy you don’t get much mpg at all).

gtmom

March 28th, 2011
10:02 am

that should be that “everything else around it was destoyed beyond recognition”

TinaTeach

March 28th, 2011
10:05 am

When my son was born I had a Pontiac Grand Prix. I used to have a Pontiac Vibe but traded it in when we decided to start a family. We figured the Grand Prix would be perfect because we could easily fit up to three kids in the bach (we only wanted two anyway!) and it was a semi-safe, nice car.

Once my son arrived though and he moved to a convertable car seat it became apparent that the Grand Prix wasn’t going to work. It was so low to the ground that we if we weren’t careful we’d bump our son’s head taking him out of his seat. Even when we were careful we’d have to lean over our scoop our knees to get him out and neither of us are that tall.

So after the 50 billionth time of bumping my son’s head my husband went out and found us a Ford Escape. No more bumped heads and it gets 25 mpg average when I drive. I wish we could have gotten a hybrid though. Other than that, we’re happy with it. It’s a little narrower than the Grand Prix and I miss my sporty little car but the sun roof and auto dimming mirrors make up for it!

TinaTeach

March 28th, 2011
10:07 am

Oh duh, and to answer the questions:

Yes, I think there need to be streamlined car seats. These are the car seat makers problem though, not the car makers.
I think in the end, either bite the bullet and buy the bigger car or maybe think about having one less kid.

deidre_NC

March 28th, 2011
10:10 am

DB-yes it was the dodge caravan..and yes the grandparents or whatever would have to buy a seat…didnt think of that even though i have booster seats in my car for the grandkids. and no bigger isnt safer…i know for sure that trucks are very -i guess you would say- crunchable. they have very little heavy structure to protect in an accident. but i had a wreck in my chrysler concord (which i thought was very very strong) and i hit a suv that pulled out in front of me…i was going 30mpg and my car was totaled and the suv (i think it was an explorer) barely had a dent.

MomOf2Girls

March 28th, 2011
10:11 am

Sorry if I have been saying something that’s not true. I’ve been basing my opinion on what I see on the roads and accidents friends and family have been in, and in general the smaller cars always seemed to get the worse end of it. If the data doesn’t bear that out, I definitely stand corrected :-)

Lady Strange

March 28th, 2011
10:33 am

I have a 2009 Kia Rondo, while it doesn’t get the best gas mileage it is easy to fit the carseat in and has good cargo space. We take a roadtrip from Georgia to Wisconsin every year and while I’d love to have something more gas friendly, my small SUV is so much more comfortable for road trips. And has plenty of room for luggage and stuff for my son, not to mention the 8 airbags I believe the car has. I specifically wanted a vehicle with side curtain airbags.

dadinloganville

March 28th, 2011
10:45 am

I don’t want a smaller car. At 6-4, 250lbs the bigger the better. A Suburban/Tahoe is the PERFECT vehicle for my family of five (14, 11, 9). I’m thrilled with 18mpg and the comfort and safety we have when on a family outing. Furthermore, this SUV is great for towing my gas guzzling boat.

TjAtl

March 28th, 2011
10:50 am

Yes! When our 3rd child arrived, I tried mightily to get all 3 carseats to fit in the back seat of my beloved Subaru Outback. Couldn’t be done! Had the seats fit, I would have gladly kept that car, as it had all of the features we needed. Now that we have the dreaded minivan, I have to say that I really like it. I just wish Toyota would come out with a Sienna hybrid for the U.S. market.

Wayne

March 28th, 2011
11:00 am

I’d like to add seat height; we’ve got two seats that have adjustable seat height so as the boys grow, the seats can acommodate them. Have to be careful because the seat might not fit! I have a difficult time taking them in and out because they are so tall – and they are not easy to adjust once in the car.

Techmom

March 28th, 2011
11:01 am

Never had to deal with this as I only have 1 but I’ve often wondered why in the heck car seat manufacturers and car manufacturers don’t work together. Why can’t car manufacturers don’t design seats to work better for children and smaller people? It just seems reasonable to me that if we’re now being told that kids have to be in boosters until they’re 80lbs or 4′9″ that cars could be designed to accommodate them. Plus I think about times when families travel. Are you really going to haul a booster seat around an airport for your 7 or 8 year old? Not likely so it would be nice if there were adjustable seats and seat belt positioning to accommodate kids who aren’t preschoolers but don’t exactly fit a regular seat.

Techmom

March 28th, 2011
11:07 am

Ooh sorry for all the typos… that’s what I get for commenting while on a phone call.

Techmom

March 28th, 2011
11:09 am

I do have a question about this new recommendation for children to be in rear-facing seats up to 2 years: where do their legs/feet go? Maybe carseats sit ‘deeper’ or further back now than when my son was a baby but I swear, by the time he was a year old, he was propping his feet up on the back of the seat. I can’t imagine how scrunched up he would be if he sat rear facing until 2.

DB

March 28th, 2011
11:23 am

@gtmom: Just looked up the Radians — wow, you could fly to the moon on one of those puppies, they’re so built!

JOD

March 28th, 2011
11:40 am

Rollovers with SUVs – the Explorer in particular – haven’t really been an issue since before 2002 due to changes in the frame/structure. I had my mid-sized SUV before having kids, and definitely wouldn’t be without it now. I will say that if we have another, it will be a full house – there will only be room for 2 adults in the front seats since the car seat and booster we have will together take up the whole bench backseat. I’m thinking about the new mid-size SUVs with 3rd rows for my next upgrade…

@Techmom – I read something about this somewhere, and the ‘experts’ are saying that it’s okay for their legs to be bent while in the seat. Where, exactly, I don’t know…up above their heads, perhaps?

gtmom

March 28th, 2011
11:51 am

My 19 month child currently just folds his legs over in a rear facing seat. He doesn’t seem to mind sitting backwards. My first son however seemed to be car sick and sitting backwards any longer than a year would have been torture on him.

We do have another gas guzzling bigger vehicle that we use for travel and for carrying our kayaks. It only has 30,000 miles and is 7 years old. We just prefer to drive around town in my small car. Not all cars are built to be the safest. But some smaller cars do well in crashes and some bigger cars do well in crashes.. Now, if you car is so small that you almost can drive under a semi.. it doesn’t make sense how well your bumper works.. if it is so low that it doesn’t even get hit, then it won’t work and we all know that glass is not very strong… We all have different needs with our cars. I commute out of town in mine (so gas mileage is nice) as long as it is safe. My hubby barely drives his bigger SUV… but when we do we need it to be big so gas mileage was not a concern for him.

To answer the questions here about car seats and car manufactures… It makes business sense (and really the bottom line is what counts) for car seat manufacturers and car manufacturers to work together. Then, they could use that as a selling point. They might be able to convince parents of three children to look at smaller cars because some parents might want that option.

DB – my older son was in a booster.. I went back to a car seat with the Radians.. they just have such a higher capacity. It is a great car seat but expensive.

motherjanegoose

March 28th, 2011
12:04 pm

Wow…I checked out the Radian…pretty snazzy. I saw it on Amazon for over $200. Who knew?
Since I have not purchased a car seat in almost 20 years, I am out of the loop for sure!
The kind we had, back then, would be obsolete now!

gtmom

March 28th, 2011
12:11 pm

Yes it would be obsolete now.. just like the Radian will be obsolete in 5 – 10 years. My doctors gave me different advice for each kid. My older was competely safe using plastic BPA bottles and a drop side crib. It was highly suggested that I got rid of BPA bottles and the drop side crib with my younger. I am sure that in 5 more years I will find out what I did wrong with my second child!!!

Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

March 28th, 2011
12:37 pm

The safety is really important and when we picked our minivan it had to have the side impact airbag for the back row of seats too not just the second row — that’s like Sophie’s choice – which kid are you going to put in the very back not protected — we specifically chose the car we got because all three rows have side impact air bags — so something else to throw in

New topic popping up by 1

Longtime Educator

March 28th, 2011
12:45 pm

Not sure why the minivan receives so much hate. My kids are grown and the first grandchild is due any day now! 3 years ago when it was time for a new vehicle, I insisted on another van. I LOVE my Honda Odyssey and it makes packing for trips and vacations so easy! I am not hauling kids anymore but I am able to go on “girlfriend” trips and carry everyone comfortably. In a few years, I’ll be able to carry the grandkids places too…by then, perhaps in a newer minivan!

motherjanegoose

March 28th, 2011
1:06 pm

@gtmom…I remember driving a 1966 station wagon ( at 16) with my 3 year old sister sitting next to me in the front seat…no seat belt and no car seat. Things have changed…yes indeed! Amazing, she can drive me around in Atlanta now and we are all buckled up.

I still see kids sitting in the bed of a pick up and shudder. Dogs back there, on the interstate, too~