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”?
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, like the one pictured above.
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.
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.
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 aka car seat law in Tennessee.
It took another 6 years until all the states had laws.
All states have a law by 1985. But even in 1987 only 80% of children use 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.
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.