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Evenflo car seats face federal investigation over safety claims

The well-known car-seat brand is alleged to have misled customers with claims that its Big Kid booster seat is safe in a side-impact crash.

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Any parent would want to make sure their kids are safe in the car. That's just common sense, so many parents turn to booster seats when their kids are at that median age and size where a young child's car seat is too small, but a car's built-in seat is still too large. 

Few parents would turn to an unknown brand name for one of these car seats, but according to a report published Wednesday by ProPublica, not even major brand names are guaranteed to be trustworthy, let alone safe.

Specifically, ProPublica learned that a House subcommittee had been formed to investigate Evenflo, a well-established manufacturer of many products for babies and small children, over concerns that it used misleading marketing tactics to sell its "Big Kid" booster seat.

Evenflo's marketing claims that the seat is "safe and side-impact tested," but saying it's been tested doesn't tell the whole story. Investigators dug up video footage of side-impact testing for the Big Kid booster seat, and the results aren't flattering. They show the test dummy -- we'll call him Baby Jeremy -- being subjected to violent forces that would very likely cause at least paralysis or possibly death.

The problem is that presently there are no federal regulations that outline testing procedures for side impacts on child seats, so it's left to the manufacturers to design their own tests and the criteria that need to be met to pass them. In the case of Evenflo, the only way that the Big Kid booster would have failed is if the seat itself was destroyed or if the test dummy was ejected from it.

As part of the investigation, Representatives Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois, and Katie Porter, D-California, requested Evenflo's records on the testing, labeling and marketing processes for the Big Kid booster seat. The company's CEO was given a deadline of Feb. 24 to produce the records.

This isn't the first instance of Evenflo acting suspect where car seats are concerned, either. ProPublica found evidence that despite the protestations of its top car seat engineer in 2012, Evenflo continued to market the Big Kid booster as being safe for kids under 40 pounds. The engineer claims that they would be better protected by a regular car seat using an internal harness.

According to ProPublica's report, a marketing executive chose to ignore the engineer's warning and continued to market the seat as being valid for kids as light as 30 lbs. Internal Evenflo emails confirm this.

So, what happens next? Well, if the House subcommittee finds that Evenflo deliberately misled buyers with its claims, then it's likely to get a fine. Beyond that, we can only hope that it spurs the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration into closing the side impact testing loophole and create a series of Federal testing guidelines and passing criteria.

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