COLUMBUS, Ind. (AP) -- One in three child crash fatalities are caused by side-impact collisions, yet car seat manufacturers never have been required to simulate a "T-bone" scenario — until now.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has proposed a new rule requiring car seats to withstand side-impact collisions of up to 30 mph.
The new standards are expected to prevent about five deaths and 65 injuries each year, a "very, very conservative estimate," according to the safety administration.
Columbus-based Dorel Juvenile Group, the world's largest car seat manufacturer, already is a few steps ahead.
"As a leader in the industry, we wanted to take the lead in this," Mark Evanko, executive vice president for quality assurance and product safety, told The Republic (http://bit.ly/1exRwbf ).
For the past decade, Dorel has been investing in car seats with side-impact protection.
"We realized the standards did not represent the most injurious collisions," said Terry Emerson, director of quality assurance, child restraint systems and regulatory affairs.
Although T-bone accidents happen less often than front- or rear-impact crashes, the scenario still is quite common, Evanko said. About one in four accidents are side-impact, according to NHTSA.
"You have an intersection and someone is supposed to be going through it and somebody is not supposed to be going through it," he said. "You get T-boned, just like that."
When NHTSA informed Congress in 2004 that enhanced side-impact protection was a priority, Dorel quickly teamed up with the agency.
Industry and regulation do not often mesh well — new regulations can mean costly equipment upgrades or new procedures for companies — but spokeswoman Julie Vallese said that's not the case with Dorel.
"The car seat industry is an industry that recognizes the need for regulations because these are safety devices," she said. "Car seats are the only child product that is required by law for parents to purchase. The child is our client."
With safety in mind, Dorel sent a petition to NHTSA asking the agency to consider using the side-impact test procedure they developed in partnership with Kettering University for the federal regulation.
The proposed rules, published in the federal register a week ago, require tests very similar to the ones being conducted in the Dorel labs for nearly a decade.
The test will simulate a T-bone collision where the front of a vehicle traveling 30 mph strikes the side of a passenger vehicle traveling at 15 mph.
Inside the Dorel Technical Center for Child Safety, a test dummy is placed on a red test bench in a Dorel car seat. The bright lights come on for the high-speed camera, and a sled barrels into the side of the bench. The crash takes only a split second, but the slow-motion video shows every force on the body.
Then the test is repeated a few thousand times.
The proposed rules' speed falls within 0.2 mph of the Dorel-Kettering method and the test bench is very similar, Emerson said.
But there still are some differences, most notably the test dummy.
The proposed regulations require car seat manufacturers to test with the 3Qs, a 40-pound test dummy representing a 3-year-old — but it isn't available for purchase yet.
Dorel has placed an order for the dummy, but the company already has been testing for side-impact with up to 80-pound test dummies.
"It's just one of the struggles," Evanko said. "But we're very confident in our own methodology."
The public has 90 days to comment on the regulation before it is finalized, and Vallese said Dorel will be going through the 40-page regulation line-by-line to provide input.
"By the time the 90 days is up, NHTSA will have a lot of additional information and opinions that it didn't have before," she said. "It can be a lengthy process, but that's so there is input from all sides. It's input that is useful, valuable and works toward an end of a final, workable, solid rule."
It will be months or even years before the regulations make a complete transition from the crash tests to cars. The proposal gives car-seat manufacturers three years to make any adjustments to comply after the regulation language is finalized — but consumers need not wait.
"We're ahead of the curve in a lot of things," Emerson said. "It's not only in our test methods, but in the products we have and in the technology we have."
Dorel already has two car seats on the market that protect against side-impact crashes: the Advance 70 and Elite 80. The seats feature Air Protect technology, which cushions a child's head with air pockets at the time of impact, and hexagonal holes in the foam that deflect energy.
"Time is your friend," Emerson said. "If you can spread out the time of the forces, it lowers the forces."
But with the Elite 80 retailing at the high end of the car seat price range at $229.99 and Advance 70 selling for $189.99, Dorel understands the new technology is not affordable to everyone — or even desirable.
"We do offer consumers a choice still on the price and the features," Emerson said. "All models will still do a very good job restraining a child. That's the point. Even without side-impact protection, children are still the safest occupant in the vehicle."