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Why Are Car Seats So Poorly Designed?

Some simple innovations could make traveling with kids a lot easier on parents—and the environment.

My husband and I are good at putting things together. IKEA, no problem. LEGO, just for fun. (This is not to brag, as we have almost a decade of combined architectural education.) So when we had a baby, it was a shock to find that we couldn’t install the car seat. The base for the Graco Snugride swung ominously from side to side, even after one parent sat on it and the other buckled the belt. The counter on the underside, meant to show you when the seat was flat (and terribly hard to see in a car with a dark interior) wouldn’t cooperate, no matter how hard we tried. Fifteen minutes, a half an hour, more, we struggled, buckling and unbuckling, and still we weren’t sure if it was in right.

Finally we succumbed to parental anxiety and made a free appointment with a New York City Car Seat Fitting Station. The website helpfully says that nine out of 10 parents are doing it wrong. If you ever ride in a car with your young child, you will have this problem. There are an awful lot of parents, and we are all prisoners of the car seat.

The difficulty of installing a car seat affects the market for car rentals, trains, planes, buses, and taxis. It is also hard to make it thorough childhood without purchasing three or more seats, and there are dire warnings against using a pre-owned one. If the United States is serious about moving away from fossil fuels and toward ride sharing, reuse, and public transportation, designers are going to have to solve the last mile problem … for parents. You got me on the train, now how do I get to grandma’s house?

Every time we plan a U.S. trip, the car seat becomes a major part of the conversation. Do we take ours, meaning we have to carry it, along with child, on the plane or train, install it in a strange car, vacation, tote it on the plane or train again, and reinstall in our car? Or do we take our chances at the other end with a rental car and a rental car seat—which is often dirty and, at an additional $10 per day, expensive? All cars don’t have the same belts and latches. All seats are not installed the same way. And the car rental attendants don’t help, because it is a liability issue. One tends to reach the conclusion that it would it be easier to drive, in your own car, leaving the seat in place.

But it is also a problem for shorter trips. We would sign up with Zipcar tomorrow if we weren’t anxious about having to install the seats (yes, our family now requires more than one) in a different model of car every time. When you are paying by the hour, you don’t want to spend the first 30 minutes strapping in the car seat. On a visit, my father can’t zip off with my son for ice cream because I don’t want to spend as much time moving the seat from car to car as it takes to eat a cone. And let’s not even talk about cabs. During this winter’s blizzard, we spent an hour and a half on the subway at 10 p.m., sleeping child in a backpack, because once your child is out of the Infant Graco Snugride, there’s no safe way to take a taxi. You try checking the car seat at a museum. Or wearing it on your back.

So much design innovation is concentrated on grown-up seats. But the children’s car seat languishes. My idea? A universal docking system, across all car models, across all car-seat manufacturers. Two mounts, in the backseat of every car, that match two “feet” on the base of every car seat, from infant to booster. To take out the seat, you push a button to unlock the mounts. To install the seat, you center it over the mounts, press down, and hear a satisfying click. Installation in a rental car, in a taxi, in a car pool: two minutes. You could ditch your car.

While I’m at it, why do I need to buy an infant seat, and then a toddler seat, and then a booster (times two or more if you don’t do your family planning around easy handing-down)? What about a modular base with different snap-ins for different size kids? Lighter weight, movable from car to car. Or boosters built into family cars (an option in the Volvo V70)? Or a collision indicator, so that you could buy or borrow a used seat with confidence?

The costly items for kids aren’t the clothes but the gear. Parents spend so much money on stuff we don’t need. A car seat is something we do need. So we keep buying them, even though they're expensive, bulky, hard to install, and ugly to look at. Designers need to make them better. And then parents can make better transportation choices—for themselves and for the planet.

Photo (cc) from Flickr user Joe Shlabotnik

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