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The dangerous history of bad child car seat designs

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Baby seat, circa 1962. Photo by RichardBH.

Survivorship bias arises when we make assumptions about those who made it through an ordeal without considering the data or testimony of those who didn’t. It’s what led Abraham Wald to discover exactly where to up-armor planes during World War II. It’s also why people will inevitably come to the defense of the deeply stupid child restraint devices of decades past simply because they lived through that period.

The fact of the matter is, however, that child restraint systems built before the late Sixties or so weren’t put on the market for safety and weren’t designed to save children’s lives in the event of an accident. Instead, companies – some established and respected, others fly-by-night – offered such devices to make a quick buck and in many cases put children at greater risk of injury or death.

Take, for instance, the baby seat pictured at top or those above, lampooned by Modern Mechanix. Offered as early as the Twenties, they hooked over the car’s front seat simply to offer a place to put a kid to either free up its parent’s hands to drive or to get the kid out of the parent’s way, as if the kid were little more than an inconvenience to the parent. Some of them claimed a measure of safety – ostensibly, with the kid out of the way, the parent could focus on safer driving – but far more placed an emphasis on the child’s comfort, its desire to see out the windshield, or the parent’s convenience.

Other approaches proved either less effective or far more dangerous. The Lull-A-Baby hammock and the Auto Strap seen above might have attached the kids to some point on or in the car, but they weren’t points designed to restrain a passenger, nor were the devices capable of keeping the kids from knocking about the interior of the car. Sears, which offered the Auto Strap, didn’t do much better in later years with its Travel Time car seats – which still hooked over the back of the seat, but offered padding this time – and did much worse with the steel travel platform offered at the same time.

This is not to say that parents at the time were inconsiderate monsters who didn’t have the health and safety of their kids in mind. As some have argued, their attitudes were more fatalistic – some people lived, some people died, and it was really all chance to them – than now, likely due to the lack of research into and the understanding of the forces involved in a crash, even among experts.

Some enterprising parents like Britain’s Jean Ames; Denver’s Leonard Rivkin; and Torrington, Connecticut’s Lester Bresson took matters into their own hands, inventing child car seats that secured the occupants to the vehicle itself to keep them from bouncing around the cabin of the car in a crash. Most parents, though, remained at the mercy of what products were on the market, figuring those were safer than nothing at all.

However, as we saw when surveying automakers’ limited efforts at building safer products prior to the Nader era, safety takes a back seat to the corporate bottom line. Indeed, as this Australian Broadcasting Commission report from February 1970 shows, devices like those shown above – still on the market at the time – were demonstrably unsafe, even more dangerous than just leaving a kid unbelted during a crash, yet manufacturers weren’t willing to pull the devices from the market for fear of losing revenue.

While the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which passed in 1966, only mandated the installation of seat belts and didn’t appear to address child seats, Ford and GM started working on accessory child car seats they could sell as optional add-ons about this time.


Images via OldCarBrochures and The Henry Ford.

Ford claimed to have its Astro-Guard child restraint seat on the market in 1965, though the earliest literature we see for it is in 1967, where the five-point belted seat – apparently secured with an adult lap belt – was sold as an accessory alongside a safety vest that Ford apparently introduced in 1957. By late in the 1968 model year, Ford introduced the Child’s Lifeguard Safety Shield (later rebranded the Tot-Guard), a massive three-piece polyethylene seat that cocooned the occupant and that a lap belt secured to the seat.


Images via OldCarBrochures.

Starting in 1969, GM started to offer an accessory child safety seat, what it would later rebrand the Love Seat. Actually, GM introduced two separate designs – a “baby in a bucket” design for infants and a booster-style seat for toddlers and older children – before redesigning the seats into something more resembling modern child car seats in the late Seventies.

(Volvo, which had been working on child car seats since 1964, also trialed a child car seat circa 1970 and seen in the video above, which entailed turning the entire front passenger bucket seat around and ensconcing the child in between two giant foam pads, themselves strapped to the seat.)

According to The Henry Ford, the later version of the Love Seat – with its five-point harness and wraparound bolsters – not only influenced modern car seat design, it also led states across the country to start mandating the use of child car seats. Tennessee started in 1978, and the other 49 states followed by the mid-Eighties. No federal law like that mandating seat belts in cars covers use of a child seat.

It’s easy to get flippant when looking at these old restraint systems that we now consider absurd. “How did that generation survive?” some might ask. “I came through just fine sleeping on the package shelf,” others might boast. But the harsh truth is that many of that generation didn’t survive due to poor understanding of crash physics, corporate greed, legislative inaction, or outright obstinacy, so take these photos as a reminder not just of your own survivorship bias but also of the forces at play – then and always – when it comes to consumer safety.