Sheesh, for going on three years now, I've had to be all equivocating and diplomatic and hedgy when writing about car seats, and facing regular email criticisms about how we must not love our child, and how could we use an illegal European car seat? NO MORE. WE WERE RIGHT.
[1/18 update: Right about the fact that EU car seats may be tested more rigorously, than US standards, that is. As for the Consumer Reports side impact test results mentioned below, CR has retracted them after the NHTSA tried to replicate them, and couldn't. The resulting discussion found errors in CR's lab's testing process. Read more here.]
Infant car seats sold in Europe undergo more rigorous testing than do models sold in the U.S. Indeed, when we crash-tested an infant seat we bought in England, it was the best in our tests. An infant seat sold in the U.S. by the same manufacturer failed.
Consumer Reports just announced the results of its extensive crash tests of a dozen US car seats, all of which meet federal safety standards for car seats. CR tested them using the crash test requirements for cars, which are more rigorous, but even still, are not entirely real world simulations, and ten of them failed. A couple of them failed everything. The only US car seats that passed NHSTA tests for cars--no malfunction or injury in either a 35mph head-on collision or a 31mph side impact--were the Baby Trend Flex-Loc and the Graco SnugRide with EPS [an impact-absorbing foam].
Meanwhile, they tested a US-spec Britax car seat, which totally sucked, and compared it to a UK-spec Britax, which did just fine. So the problem is not--or not just--the companies; it's the regulatory standards and the government agencies that enforce them. CR is characteristically scathing in its call for the NHSTA to make car seat safety testing requirements at least as stringent as the regimen for the vehicles themselves. They also call for a re-examination of the whole LATCH system, which actually led to more failures in their tests than regular seat belt and/or base installation.
The reason we started considering our Maxi-Cosi Cabrio car seat was aesthetics, I'll admit it. But as soon as we started researching the differences, it became clear that the EU's safety performance testing was at least as rigorous as the US's, and if you factor in the side impact testing, it was even moreso. Consumer Reports didn't test a Maxi-Cosi, but they come out strongly in favor of the more stringent safety requirements of our Maxi-Cosi's home market. That's close enough for me.
Buying a European car seat for the US isn't for everyone; it's kind of expensive, or it can be a pain to get here. But I think from this point on until the regulations are improved, I would say the fact that it hasn't passed US safety testing is an argument for, not against getting one.
Read Consumer Reports' test results and recommendations: Most infant car seats failed our new front and side-crash tests [consumerreports.org, via dt readers david, rae, lex, noisette's maman, micaela, brian, and matthew. whew.]
Previously: Euro-trash car seat: the Maxi-Cosi Cabrio; M-C Cabrio ISOFIX/LATCH; &c. &c.
Coming Soon: discussion of some higher performance US car seats designed with safety, not just test-passing, in mind.