While there is plenty of evidence that children have been riding in and even driving cars since the automobile’s invention over 100 years ago, specialty seating designed specifically for children has only been a serious consideration in the past 50 years. The safety standards informing modern child car seat design were only implemented as recently as the late 1990s.
If car designs these days seem more homogeneous compared to the autos of yesteryear, it’s because they are. Neglecting safety concerns, early car designs prioritized striking visual appeal and raw horsepower. Modern car makers now take into account how impact forces are distributed during several types of crashes. Safety concerns impose a longer list of must-have design elements such as airbags, seatbelts, crumple zones, and safety cages.
Seating has also become standardized. Original car designs featured seating that may have been comfortable, but was not necessarily secure. Seatbelts were neither standard nor well-designed. The three-point lap belt that is common today wasn’t introduced until 1959, nearly 50 years after the Model T kicked off the age of mass production.
In The Beginning
Until relatively recently, safety had been an afterthought in car design, if it was even considered at all. It’s not surprising that the first child car seat wasn’t developed until the 1960s.
1886: One of the first automobiles is invented by Karl Benz in Germany.
1908: The Ford Model T is introduced, this is among the first mass-produced cars.
1933: The Bunny Bear Company produces one of the first child car seats. It is neither safe nor practical.
1955: Roger W. Griswold and Hugh DeHaven patent a three-point lap belt similar to the seatbelts used in most cars today.
1962: Jean Ames creates a rear-facing child car seat and Leonard Rivkin develops a forward-facing seat for children. These are a few of the first child car seats to improve passenger safety.
1964: Beril Aldmann develops a rear-facing child car seat in Sweden similar to modern designs.
1966: The US Congress passes the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. This legislation set standards for vehicle design and established what is now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
1968: Ford produces the “Tot-Guard” car seat and GM produces the “Love Seat” car seat.
1971: The NHTSA develops the American Car Seat Standards, which mandates all car seats be installed using the built-in safety belt.
1985: All 50 US states have laws that require children to ride in car seats.
1988: Safe Kids Worldwide (SKW) is founded. SKW is a nonprofit organization dedicated to informing parents on the best ways to keep their children safe, including a focus on reducing child traffic injuries.
1996: Seat belt retractors become mandatory in the US.
1997: The international car seat system, ISOFIX is established. In the US, this is called LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children).
While the earliest automobiles were unlikely to exceed speeds of 15 miles per hour, by the 1930s, many cars could reach at least 50 miles per hour, making them more dangerous for passengers and pedestrians alike.
Browsing through pictures of old automobiles, those that show families or children don’t typically feature any devices for child safety. Children sat on parents’ laps, floorboards, or piled in wherever they could fit. While the Bunny Bear Company developed and sold a child car seat as early as 1933, their invention did little to improve child safety.
Other child car seat offerings between the 30s and 60s were similar: designed to fit children, but lacking the ability to actually improve child safety in the event of a crash. As with car designs, child car seat designs varied much more back then than they do today.
It’s no wonder that the number of auto-related deaths in the US rose rapidly after the car’s invention. In 1937, auto deaths per capita peaked at around 30.8 per 100,000 people. This number stayed relatively consistent until it started dropping around 1969 (that year the fatality rate was 27.7 deaths per 100,000 people). For comparison, in 2021, the auto fatality rate was 14.3 per 100,000 people, around half the death rate in 1969 (According to data from the National Safety Council).
Auto Safety Gets Serious (Car Seats of Yesteryear)
It wasn’t until the late 1960s that child car seats as we know them today first became common. A pivotal moment for auto safety in the US came when Ralph Nader published his 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed, which criticized the auto industry’s apparent lack of concern for public safety. As popular outrage rose, Congress passed legislation that created national safety standards for automobile design.
The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act was passed in 1966, and it set a number of regulatory standards for automakers. This act established the National Highway Safety Bureau (now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). The passage of this act represented a turning point in auto safety for both automakers and the public.
Around this time, Jean Ames, Leonard Rivkin, and Beril Aldmann developed the first car seats that would improve child safety.
The Jeenay (1962)
While more advances were to come, the Jeenay was among the first car seats to firmly secure the car seat using a lap belt. This car seat also featured a Y-belt restraint to secure the child and distribute impact forces across the chest.
Leonard Rivkin Rear-Facing Car Seat (1962)
Leonard Rivkin was an engineer who developed a car seat designed to better distribute impact forces for children. Notable about Rivkin’s design is the inclusion of a five-point harness and the rear-facing design.
Beril Aldmann Car Seat (1964)
Swedish professor Beril Aldman developed a rear-facing car seat after finding inspiration from astronauts (who also sat rear-facing to better distribute G-forces). Aldman’s seat inspired the development of a rigorous set of crash test standards (in Sweden) for car seats that drastically improved child safety.
Modern Car Seats
While modern vehicles are designed to protect passengers in the event of a crash, they are primarily built with adult passengers in mind. Some design elements – such as airbags – actually create more danger for small children.
When considering child passengers, safety devices must account for a child’s short height, low weight, weak neck muscles, and development level.
Being smaller and lighter than adults, a vehicle’s built-in belt system is not appropriate for children. It’s important that a seatbelt lay across a passenger’s chest, which is why a child car seat must either boost the occupant to an appropriate height or provide a built-in adjustable harness.
Because of their undeveloped neck strength, small children – and especially babies – are especially prone to whiplash. Even if a belt restrains a child by the chest, sudden jerking motion can cause severe injury.
Employing a rear-facing design is one of the first major car seat innovations and one way to reduce whiplash. By facing the rear of the car, impact forces are more evenly distributed across the entire body, instead of concentrating around the head and neck.
Some children need to be restrained so that they don’t go wandering around the car while it’s moving. A car seat may be necessary to keep a passenger in place when they can’t be expected to keep themselves in place for whatever reason.
Modern car seats must meet all of these challenges for a range of child weights and heights. Especially since children grow, a workable car seat must be highly adjustable. Not to mention each vehicle is different.
ISOFIX and LATCH
A major advancement in car seat safety was the development of international standards for auto manufacturers. ISOFIX (called LATCH, or, Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, in the US) is a system for securing car seats to vehicles. Today, virtually every automobile includes a set of standardized anchor bars for child car seat installation.
Load Legs and Anti-Rebound Bars
Load-bearing legs and anti-rebound bars are some of the most recent innovations in car seat technology. These features are not currently a requirement for child car seats to meet US safety standards but are thought to improve overall child safety. These are also innovations exclusive to rear-facing car seats.
During a frontal impact, passenger bodies will initially move toward the front of the car and then rebound backward into the seat. Improved seat cushioning and padding help to reduce the damage caused by this impact. Load legs and anti-rebound bars work to minimize this rebound effect.
A load leg is an extendable shaft at the back (which faces forward in a rear-facing seat) of a child car seat. It prevents the car seat from moving as far forward in a frontal crash, and so reduces the distance and force with which the seat moves back during the rebound effect.
An anti-rebound bar is attached to the front of a car seat (which faces backward in a rear-facing seat). This bar absorbs some of the impact force when the car seat rebounds backward after an impact.
Choosing A Safe Car Seat
Car seats today are much safer than the car seats of 30 years ago, and astronomically safer than the very first child car seats. Thanks to international efforts and a number of innovations, child fatality rates in auto accidents have declined significantly, especially since the 1970s.
Today, child fatality rates in auto accidents are relatively low and have been for over a decade. Since 2011, the rate of child traffic fatalities has hovered around 1.8 per 100,000 child population, according to the NHTSA.
Any car seat sold in the US must meet NHTSA safety standards, which means it has been crash-tested. There is no one brand that is especially safer than the others. What is important is that you choose the right car seat for your child and that install and use it properly.
The NHTSA website contains a handy primer for the types of car seats. Generally, children should ride in the rear-facing position for as long as possible. Most brands include instructions that specify height and weight limits.
If you aren’t sure how to properly install a car seat, or you want to have your installation checked by an expert, Safe Kids Worldwide runs events in every state where a certified car seat technician will examine your seat and provide you with advice. You can also reach out to your local fire department or hospital to ask about resources or inspections. Fire departments and hospitals typically employ at least one person certified to inspect car seat installations.