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The General History of Car Seats: Then and Now

history of car seats

When you ponder the history of car seats and look at the dates of when advances actually took place from the creation to acceptance and from the regulation to the legal requirement of usage, you may wonder if it’s because of critics that things took so long.

There always seems to be critics especially when innovations are first developed. Did they question the cost and necessity of the seats? Did they think the car is safe so why would I need additional protection for my child? Later in the history of car seats, did they —like many of us still do— think, “well I survived, my child will too”?

history of car seats

What is the history of car seats?

People designed early car seats simply to lift the child to allow him to look out the window and to keep the child more or less in one spot in the car.

Originally “child seats” started out as nothing more than burlap sacks with a drawstring that hung over the headrest on the passenger’s seat.

Later in 1933, Bunny Bear Company produced a seat that was basically a booster seat. The seat propped backseat riders up so parents could keep an eye them. In the 40s,  manufacturers released canvas seats on a metal frame that attached to the car’s front seat so the child could get a better view out the windshield and stay occupied with a play steering wheel, like the seat pictured above.

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The apparent lack of safety is really not surprising. After all, occupant safety wasn’t in top form in the early days of automobiles. It wasn’t until 1959 that a 3-point seat belt (lap-shoulder belt) was even available in cars. Just to give you an idea, in 1959 the motor-vehicle death rate by miles driven was four to five times higher than recent years. The rate started a steady plunge in the early 1970s after safety-equipment regulations, laws and increased enforcement took effect.

It took about 30 years before people considered car seats as possible safety devices.

Finally thinking car safety

In 1962 two inventors designed car seats with the idea of safety in mind.

Jeenay car seat brochure history

Jean Helen Ames was a British mother and journalist. She is credited for being the first to suggest safety seats for children. According to her son, Richard Ames, she wanted to him as safe as possible in the car. It is said she initially designed a seat that had the child rear-facing with a Y-belt to restrain the child in the event of a crash. (I’ve been unable to find any additional information or photos of that seat.) She filed two patents in London in 1965 for a 5-strap safety harness — similar to today’s models — made of “British Nylon to restrain without harm” and a “tamper-proof, parachute-style centre pin with quick release” buckle. The Jeenay car seat, named for Jean Ames, offered these two features.

Leonard Rivkin, a Denver business man and retired civil engineer, designed a seat with an iron-framed booster seat that utilized a revolutionary (at the time), five-point harness system. The idea started after his family car was struck from behind and his son went flying from the back seat to land at his wife’s feet.

In 1964, a Swedish professor named Bertil Aldman, recognized the protective effects of rear-facing car seats after watching an American TV program showing the position of the astronauts in the Gemini space capsule. He designed the first rear-facing car seat. With Aldman’s research and researcher Thomas Turbell’s push, Sweden set the “T-standard”, which was so stringent it was almost impossible for a forward-facing seat to pass. This began the tradition of Swedish children to be in a rear-facing car seat until age 4 which continues today.

By 1968 auto manufacturers were getting into the game with the first car seats designed for crash protection. Ford developed the Tot-Guard and General Motors developed the Love Seat for Toddlers, followed quickly by the GM Infant Love Seat (the first rear-facing only restraint). Then there came the Bobby Mac convertible seat.

Then came regulations

It took 9 years from the innovation of safety conscious car seats to the beginning of regulations for them.

In 1971 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration adopts the first federal standards, FMVSS213. At the time requirements did not include crash tests but did require use of a safety belt to hold the car seat into the vehicle and a harness to hold the child in the car seat.

It took 17 years from innovation and 8 years from preliminary regulations to the first state law.

1979 saw the first child restraint law, aka car seat law, in Tennessee.

It took another 6 years until all the states had laws.

By 1985 all states passed laws requiring use of car seats. But even in 1987 only 80% of children used a car seat.

We understand, innovation precedes regulation. After all people need to invent products before anyone can make up rules about them. The government needs time to create a committee and criteria and discuss it and discuss it some more and send to other people to discuss it before something is written, which probably has to be handed to someone else discuss and finally to someone else to approve. (That’s the way it seems anyway.)

Car seats were obviously around when I was a child, not that I recall ever being in one. I spent a good part of my childhood rolling around the back of a van in a customized bed/table area (the table lowered to make a bed area, great for camping). Of course there was no legal requirement yet, not until I was closer to “booster age”.

Today in the history of car seats

Experts, manufacturers and law makers continue to make improvements. Gradually the designs got closer and closer to what we have today.

States have routinely increased the car seat requirements as experts learn better ways of protecting children in the car. Many state car seat laws now require keeping children rear facing until age two. Many also implemented laws to keep older children safer as well.

Download our report: Common Car Seat Mistakes and How to Fix Them

LATCH systems were introduced into vehicles. A new federal regulation required car manufactures to include the complete system in all cars by model year 2003. These are lower anchors and top tether anchor points intended to improve the ease of install and stability of the seat if the car gets into a crash.

Car seats must meet strict federal crash test regulations which also continue to evolve. Child restraints also come with expiration dates. And parents take safety recalls seriously.

These days, parents do exhaustive research on car seat options. And many go the extra step of getting their car seats checked for proper installation by a Child Passenger Safety Technician — something unheard of even 25 years ago. (NHTSA, Safe Kids Worldwide and National Child Passenger Safety Board implemented the technician program in 1997.)

But even now we don’t have 100% usage.

Some crashes are unsurvivable. Recent years’ statistics show more than 57% of deaths for children 0-15 were because the child was unrestrained. If (and there’s really no question here) they are so wonderful for keeping our kids safe, why isn’t there 100% usage now and why did it take so long to even get this far? Is it because of critics? Was there some general sentiment that it’s not really needed? That it’s not really safer like all of us experts say?

Correct car seat usage is even lower. Still about 75% of car seats have some sort of use error.

Done looking back at the history of car seats, what does the future hold?

Things continue to improve with new standards being developed and innovative new products, including the RideSafer Travel Vest.

And revolutionary products, like the Tummy Shield, are being developed to protect even younger children. Yes, younger, as in unborn babies. There is more to come in child passenger safety in a time of faster and faster technological developments for both car seats and vehicles. It’s exciting to see.

We want to know, have you ever questioned (even just once) the necessity of car seats? Share your comments below.

By Amie Durocher, Creative Director at Safe Ride 4 Kids and certified CPS Tech since 2004

Copyright 2018 Safe Ride 4 Kids. All rights reserved. You may not publish, broadcast, rewrite or redistribute this material without permission. You are welcome to link to Safe Ride 4 Kids or share on social media.

We originally published this post in July 2015. We updated the article for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
Richard Ames
The Tot-Guard by Ford Motor Company and the Love Seat by General Motors


  1. In 1978, when I was pregnanth my first child, it was the first time I ever read about booster seats. The article said to buy the ones that could be held by the seat belts. Children were pRop-up Oron a non-restrained booster seat would slide from under the seat belt when the brakes where hit faster than children who only wore seat belts. Therefore, the best options then were seat belts or restrained booster seats.

    I’m glad that there are many programs in this era that are working towards making sure that each child has a car seat. My children never had one due to the expense. (In my rules, seat belts were mandatory, as car seats are now for all my grandchildren and friends).

    It seemed at that time that public opinion was that car seats where fancy expensive seats for fancy expensive cars, and not for safety concern. Safety was considered as an option and as a sale tag for expensive seats. All parents should be given a car seat. Even if they don’t own a car, at one time or another, they have to get a ride.

    My cell phone does not show the pictures on your web site, but I hope you have a picture of my favorite booster seat as a toddler. It was a seat that hung on back seat, and it had a steering wheel in front to play with.

    If you permit me to say, please vote. Many safety rules where voted in by people, while others where supported by the person you voted for in your neighborhood as he ascended politically. It starts in your neighborhood.

    1. Thank you Rossana! Your comment brings some historical insight to car seats and how they were viewed even as recent as the 70s.

  2. I understand the safety improvements of carseats, and am thankful for them, especially for infants. It is moreso the laws that are in place, and becoming more and more restrictive as of late that I hold issue with. I have a growing family, and admittedly, not the most modest of incomes, but I do plan on letting my family grow in size. Even with only three children, and a fairly large car, I find it harder, and by these laws alone, more and more expensive to raise my family. Everyone reading this may find this claim odd, but it seems that these laws are being more restrictive to discourage families from having more kids.
    I am 30, and if these laws were in place as I grew up, I would have been (almost no matter what state, or even European country) through the middle of high school, due to size and stature, before I would have been able to sit in the front seat, and possibly have just graduated middle school before I would have “graduated” into a regular seatbelt.

    1. I have four young children (6, 6, 3, 1). Some may consider that a large family, some may not.
      I respectfully disagree with you regarding the laws making it more expensive for large families. Here are a few reasons why…
      – Manufacturers have made car seats available in every price range from as low as $45 for the Cosco Scenera NEXT which will get many kids rear facing until almost 4 years old to seats that rear face to 50+ lbs for under $200. That’s huge! It used to cost well over $200 to keep a child rear facing past 40lbs. And to clarify, non of the new state laws require rear facing to 40lbs. I’m just basing this off of best practice as stated by the AAP.
      – Seats like the one I mentioned above, Cosco Scenera NEXT is one of the narrowest and most compact seats on the market making it suitable for three across or other “crowded” vehicle arrangements.
      – Booster seats like BubbleBum and Incognito for example make it easy to keep older kids in a booster and yet accommodate everyone safely in the vehicle. They also look less like a “booster seat” for those overly concerned with social pressures of big kids in boosters.

      Trust me, I’m all for government leaving us alone and let us raise our children. But what if there was disease that was the leading cause of death for children? We would be screaming at the government to do something about it and protect our children. The reality is, proper use of child restraints does reduce fatality rates against the leading cause of death…motor vehicle accidents. As a child passenger safety technician I’m constantly educating parents on best practice but so many fall back on the laws and assume that if it’s legal, it’s safe. Until laws change, we’re not going to get parents attention. Children don’t have the ability to protect themselves and I believe this is where it is appropriate for the government to step in to protect our future.

      And finally…let’s talk more about cost. Let’s say you do what most parents do and buy and infant seat and then a convertible seat for a total cost of $450 (I’m even going to go a bit more towards the higher end of the price range just to make my point). Those two seats will be used for roughly 5 years combined for one child. That averages out to be $0.25 per day. If you have multiple children and you pass down the seats that number is even less. And if money is tight, you could easily cut that number in half or more by going straight to a convertible seat. In fact, you could buy a long lasting convertible seat for as low as about $85 which for most kids could easily last 5 years bringing that daily cost down to a whopping $0.04 per day. Yep, less than a nickel a day. And since I’m on a numbers kick, lets throw in a booster seat. So now we’re at $450 + $50 (again, going mid/high on this one too) so $500 for 10 years of safety for your child. That comes in at just under $0.14 per day (or closer to $0.03 if we go super budget friendly like I mentioned). That number drops even lower when you look at the fact that you can pass your seats down to your younger children (assuming they aren’t expired, damaged, etc).

      What would it cost for your child to spend just one night in the hospital after sustaining injuries from a motor vehicle accident? What if those injuries that could have been prevented by using the proper child restraint? What would you be willing to pay for that?

      What do you pay for “luxuries” in your daily life…Starbucks coffee? The latest iPhone? More than $0.14/day? See my point? I’m not trying to make light of finances. Kids are expensive. But there are far better ways to save money on raising children than by cutting back on life saving devices like child restraints.

      Furthermore, the proposed laws aren’t even up to the best practice recommendations backed by science. My children are maximums, not minimums. Frankly I don’t care what the laws say…even the strictest child passenger laws in the country aren’t enough protection for my child.

      1. It’s great that you narrowed down the cost of these seats by the day, but can you go to the store and give a nickel a day to “rent” these seats? The cost is what it is and for some people paying the reality of the cost up front isn’t as easy as your breakdown of cost.

        1. Payment plans are possible at a few stores, but if we’re talking about planning for a child, 9 months to gather $50 or so is possible for most American families. If it’s not, asking family and friends to pitch in might be a viable option, and there are a number of programs that offer free car seats, including WIC, some Medicaid programs, some local hospitals and doctors’ offices, and organizations like United Way. (I can forward the details if anyone would like them.)

          I know that this post is from several years ago, but it was the first result when I searched for car seat laws, so I assume that there are still a number of people that see this page and could benefit from this information. Protect your kids, please! Once someone you know has died or been seriously injured in a car accident, you will understand why we are so determined to get everyone on board.

  3. My main complaint about car seats is the number of babies who are in the back seat facing backwards who are quiet (maybe asleep, sun in their eyes), who are not noticed or remembered (having a child in the car is a new thing…) and they get left I the car and due! So sad…
    If the child were anywhere visible, ie the front seat, this would not happen…. There have been way too many deaths from overheating.
    The argument that it would be distracting to the parent doesn’t hold water be ause a conciencous parent will always be looking I the back seat to check their child, whereas if the child were up front the parent’s eyes would at least be up front. How many accidents are even caused by a parent trying desperately to check their child who is in the back seat, especially facing backwards. This law needs to change, for many reasons, ones not even listed here.

    1. The law is for children to be in the rear seat in a rear-facing car seat because that is safest for the child (or any occupant really) in the event of a crash. It’s especially dangerous to have a child in a rear-facing car seat (which is 5x safer than a forward-facing car seat) in the front seat with an active airbag. While it is sad that children die in hot cars, the number of crashes that occur far outnumber the number of times a parent leaves the child in a hot car. Every year there are about 38 children who die in hot cars. A percentage of that number get into the car themselves to play without the parents knowledge. And yes a percentage are left, forgotten by their parents. But thousands upon thousands (a total of 5.5 million reported crashes a year) of children experience car crashes every year and need to be properly protected for that circumstance.

      1. How about a camera in back seat and a screen on baby seat. When you look in your rear mirror you would see the child. Could also be worked into dashboard screen.

  4. I found this blog because I was looking for the history of car seats for children.. An infant (barely over a year old) in my family’s genealogical past died in a train/car wreck on 12 Oct 1915 in Colorado even though all the adults survived. It took a very LONG time for folks to protect little children in autos and maybe nowadays children in car seats and adults using seat belts can live.

  5. Really nice blog! You shared such an amazing collection of booster seats for babies. I like your post. Thanks for sharing this post.

  6. I was wondering why car makers won’t change the way they install front seats? That way the driver can see the car seat because it’s right next to them. I’m sure they can come up with that idea. The back of the seat could move from front to back so they have an option. Too many car deaths of children where they are forgotten and die.

    1. The back seat is a safer location for children during crashes. So while having a child sit in the front (if there were no passenger airbag) it may save some of the average of 38 children who die every year in hot cars (remember about 30% of those children get into the car themselves while playing which is why it’s important to look before you lock when you get out of the car and keep the car locked when parked). Having children in the front seat could increase the number of deaths from car crashes, which is already about 794 children ages birth to 12 every year.

  7. Very interesting blog. Here in the U.K. there have been strict laws for many years yet I still see children riding unrestrained daily. It breaks my heart and makes me angry, especially as I have had the awful job of breaking the news to families of the death of their child and have literally had to scrape up the remains of a child thrown from a crashed vehicle.

    There really is no excuse for not using one in this day and age. They can be so inexpensive.

    I have had parents use all sorts of excuses as to why their child isn’t restrained. “I didn’t know they had to be” is the one that angers me the most because it has been law since before anyone giving birth today was even born. Common excuse is “I was only popping round the corner”.

    For the cost of a decent bottle of vodka you can potentially save your child’s life yet some parents choose the vodka!

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