We are asked this question often, from parents feeling stressed about the pressure to spend $350 (or more!) on a car seat to keep their children safe. Will a seat that costs that much do a better job of protecting your child in a crash? Short answer: no, as long as it’s appropriate for the child, installed properly, and used properly!
Every single seat currently available for sale in Canada will bear the National Safety Mark. That is your assurance as a consumer that the seat has passed the exact same crash test standard as every other seat out there. Most manufacturers do not release their crash test data, so we don’t know how much beyond the standard a particular seat made it. Seats either get a pass, or a fail. If they pass, they go on the shelves. If they fail, they don’t.
So what are you getting in a $350+ seat versus a $99 seat? Mostly just ease of use features and premium options. Those features may be worth it to you, but don’t make the seat inherently safer. Unless…unless that feature makes you able to install and use the seat correctly every single time. There are features that are handy; there are features that make an installation possible in a vehicle that’s tough to put a car seat into; there are features that make only a single seat possible in a given situation; there are some really nice fabrics out there.
We’ll attempt to point out some features that might make a particular seat attractive in your situation, and then it’s a matter of deciding what is worth your money, and what is just marketing. After all of that though, do make sure it fits into your vehicle properly!
Premium UAS Connectors
Universal Anchorage System, aka latch, is an alternate means of installing a car seat into a vehicle that is equipped with lower anchors in the seat bight (corner between the seat bottom and seat back). Cars 2003 and newer have them. It’s not safer than a seat belt, just another way of installing it. There are many different versions of UAS connectors (hooks) out there, ranging from a simple metal hook, to those with push button releases. How often do you move your seat around? It it’s daily, you might want to pay a little more for a seat with premium connectors. If it’s hardly ever, then it’s likely not a priority. Even the most basic connectors are simple to do with a little practice.
Side Impact Protection
The best possible side impact protection you can give your child is to rear face her for as long as possible, in any seat appropriate for her height and weight. Many seats are now marketed with various forms of ‘side impact protection’, ranging from large head wings, air pockets around the head, special foam and other materials, or a deep shell. As there is no federal crash test standard for side impact protection, consumers really must take a manufacturer at their word that is has any effect whatsoever. It probably doesn’t hurt anything, but whether it helps or not is anybody’s guess. At the very least, seats with deeper shells or head wings provide a nice spot to rest a tired head.
To adjust the harness height (at or BELOW the shoulders while rear-facing, at or ABOVE for forward-facing, right?), many seats require you to undo the harness straps at the back of the seat, pull the strap out, and re-thread it through the correct slot, and then put it all back together. Some seats come with a no-rethread harness, meaning you don’t have to undo anything to adjust the height. Rear-facing seats typically don’t have to be uninstalled to change the height, but forward-facing seats do. Whether this feature is attractive depends entirely on how you use the seat. People who have multiple children using the same seat (not at the same time, of course!) really like this feature. They can raise or lower the harness height in seconds. Those who have a dedicated seat for a single child also like this feature, but really don’t need it. Re-doing a harness height manually five times over the course of a seat’s life is really not a deal breaker for most of us.
Seats with built-in lock-offs have a locking mechanism as part of the seat that locks the seat belt, rather than relying on the locking mechanism of the seat belt itself, if one exists, and replacing the need for a locking clip if the lap/shoulder belt doesn’t lock. This can be handy if you install often with a seat belt and that installation is difficult, or have an older car with seat belts that don’t lock in some way. They can be useful, and in certain situations extremely helpful, but are not necessarily going to be the difference between a successful installation and an unsuccessful one. Lap/shoulder seat belts can be locked with a locking clip if they don’t lock in some other way, but most techs would agree that using a lock-off is easier in most circumstances. If you frequently travel internationally, a seat with lock-offs can be very handy if you’re in vehicles without UAS/latch/ISOFIX, or non-locking seat belts.
Latch-able (UAS-able) Boosters
Once a child is at the booster stage, many parents are alarmed to discover that the booster seat just sits there (!) on the vehicle seat. Yes, that is what booster seats do, as it’s the seat belt that is now restraining the child. There are some boosters, or harnessed seats that convert to boosters, that come with the ability to be semi-installed with UAS. All this does is prevent the booster from become a projectile in a crash, and eliminates the need to re-buckle the booster when it’s empty (because you do that, right?). This feature is not required to be used in vehicles that do not have lower anchors.
Premium Fabrics/Plush Padding
Higher end seats do typically have really nice fabrics (oh how we love that Britax Cowmooflage!), with more comfort padding in various places. That’s purely fashion however – unless you do long drives or your child has a special need for a particular fabric.
There are some situations that call for a particular seat. Often the need is for either a very narrow seat, or a very tall seat. There are unfortunately not a lot of seats out there that meet those criteria, and in certain circumstances parents may be faced with having to spend a fair bit of money to get a seat that fits the bill. Very tall or long-torsoed kids have only one option to remain harnessed beyond the ~18” torso height of most other seats (Britax Frontier has a 20” harness height). The Diono Radian is very 3-across friendly at only about 17” wide, but comes with a price tag of $250-340 depending on model. On the other end of the spectrum is the Cosco Scenera, frequently on sale for $60. It’s a great every day seat, although short so it won’t last forever, but makes a super travel seat as it’s lightweight and installs easily (see note above re lock-offs if you’re traveling internationally where locking seat belts are not common).
When shopping for a seat (here are our thoughts for what to consider while doing that!) decide if you actually need the feature on the seat, or if it’s just a nice bonus. Ultimately your child is just as safe as long as you take the time to properly install and use your seat every time. And one more thing? Have your install checked by a certified technician just to make sure.