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House Subcommittee Opens Investigation of Evenflo, Maker of “Big Kid” Booster Seats

The probe comes after ProPublica’s story showing that the company put marketing of its “Big Kid” booster seats over child safety.

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A congressional subcommittee is launching an investigation of Evenflo, a major maker of children’s car booster seats, over its product marketing and testing practices.

A ProPublica investigation last week showed how the company put marketing over safety in pushing its booster seats as “side impact tested,” even though its own tests showed a child using that seat could be paralyzed or killed in such a crash.

ProPublica obtained videos of the company’s side-impact tests that Evenflo performed on its top-selling Big Kid booster seat, internal corporate documents and depositions that had not been previously public. The tests showed child-sized dummies thrown violently out of their shoulder belts with their heads and torsos careening far outside the seats. Evenflo’s top car seat engineer admitted in a 2019 deposition that if real children’s bodies moved that way, they could suffer catastrophic injuries or die. Yet, Evenflo gave each of those tests passing grades.

In a letter sent Wednesday to Evenflo’s CEO, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., and Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., requested Evenflo’s testing, labeling and other records related to its marketing of the Big Kid and other boosters for an investigation by the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy. Krishnamoorthi, chairman of that subcommittee, and Porter gave Evenflo a Feb. 24 deadline to respond to the request for documents and information.

There are no federal regulations for booster seats in side-impact crashes. So Evenflo, like other car seat makers, made up its own test, and then Evenflo passed itself. In its tests, the only way to fail was if the child-sized dummy ended up on the floor or the booster itself broke into pieces.

Citing ProPublica’s investigation, Krishnamoorthi and Porter wrote, “Videos of Evenflo’s side-impact tests for the ‘Big Kid’ seat show child-sized test dummies bending violently at the hip, torsos, and neck, as well as test dummy heads being thrown to the side. This video evidence appears to present a high risk of serious injuries to the head, neck, and spine.”

Evenflo, they added, has marketed the Big Kid as “safe and ‘Side Impact Tested.’”

“That safety representation appears to be inconsistent with the video evidence of side impact testing,” Krishnamoorthi and Porter wrote. “In fact, your company’s internal tests appear to show that side impacts could put children sitting in the ‘Big Kid’ seat in grave danger.”

Last week, Porter reacted to ProPublica’s investigation with a tweet that characterized Evenflo’s actions as “corporate abuse, plain and simple.”

In response to the letter, Evenflo’s general counsel said, “We will, of course, respond to the inquiry in a timely fashion.”

Responding to the ProPublica investigation, Evenflo General Counsel Amy Blankenship said the company makes safe, effective and affordable products. She blamed “significant driver error” for the injuries of the three children in the ProPublica report and said the Big Kid performed as it was designed to do in each of the crashes. She added that “children in safe, quality car seats still can be injured in car crashes, especially severe ones.”

ProPublica last week also revealed that Evenflo’s top car seat engineer in 2012 told executives at the company that they should stop marketing the Big Kid booster seat to children under 40 pounds because those kids would be better protected in traditional car seats with internal harnesses. At the same time, he sent them a federal report, which found that 3- and 4-year-old children had a reduced risk of injury in crashes when they were using harnessed seats and that early graduation to boosters may “present safety risks.” But a marketing executive “vetoed” the safety engineer’s recommendation, an internal Evenflo email shows, and the company continued to sell the Big Kid for children as light as 30 pounds. Evenflo, a subsidiary of China-based Goodbaby International Holdings Ltd., has sold more than 18 million Big Kid boosters. Six other car seat makers currently sell their booster seats for children as small as 30 pounds.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children only move to boosters when they have outgrown their harnessed seats because the transition results in a decrease in safety. There’s a reason NASCAR drivers use harnesses.

Responding to the ProPublica investigation, Blankenship asserted that boosters and harnessed seats provide “comparable overall safety.”

Evenflo was able to make up its own side-impact tests and decide what passes because of a hole in federal regulations. Nearly 20 years ago, Congress passed a law requiring the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to create rules that would minimize children’s head injuries in side-impact collisions, but regulators still haven’t enacted side-impact crash tests for boosters or other car seats.

Side-impact crashes were responsible for more than a quarter of deaths of children under 15 killed in vehicle collisions in 2018. While less common than head-on crashes, they are especially dangerous because there’s only a door between a child and an intruding vehicle.

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Portrait of Patricia Callahan

Patricia Callahan

Patricia Callahan is a reporter covering business.

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