- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2005

VANDALIA, Ohio - Now coming to a sport utility vehicle near you: adjustable armrests, cup holders, storage slots for hand-held video games and overhead lights for reading — and coloring.

All are standard fare on the new generation of car seats for children. As more states push 4- to 8-year-olds back into safety seats, manufacturers also have added padding, neck pillows, snack holders and slots for toys.

“This is a wild departure from the designs really the whole industry has had over many years,” said Randy Kiser, senior engineering director for the Evenflo Co., based in Vandalia in southwestern Ohio.

The design changes are the product of competition in a growing $100 million market and the need to appeal to older children who have tasted the more adult freedom of seat belts.

“You’re not going to sell a 4-year-old or a 5-year-old or a 6-year-old on the safety benefit,” Mr. Kiser said.

There are “Toy Story” and Hot Wheels seats for boys, Disney Princess and Barbie seats for girls. Baby colors are out. Boys’ seats come in bold reds as well as black and grays, while girls’ seats are pink and purple.

“Fashion is just a huge part of it,” said Tricia Ryan, spokeswoman for Graco Children’s Products, based in Exton, Pa. “They want something that looks cool or is pretty.”

The seats also have reversible pads for warm and cold weather and can adjust to the height of children as they grow.

Six-year-old Ben Gessel, a first-grader in Arlington, Va., has a red Graco TurboBooster with armrests and cup holders. He likes the color — his third-favorite — and the headrest.

“It’s easy to sleep when I’m tired,” he said.

Ben’s friends all have booster seats, so there is little peer pressure to try to resist the requirement. Given a choice, however, Ben would choose seat belts because he could get out of the car faster.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for children between the ages of 2 and 14. The agency estimates that the lives of 446 children younger than 5 were saved in 2003 because of the use of child-restraint systems.

The first child safety seats, which have harnesses and are anchored by seat belts, were developed in the 1960s. They weren’t widely used until the 1980s after states began requiring them, usually for children up to age 4.

But safety advocates say seat belts don’t fit many older children properly and can cause internal injuries in crashes.

Lap belts can encircle the abdomen instead of the hip bones, and the shoulder belt can end up on the child’s neck instead of over the collarbone. A seat that correctly positions the belts lowers the risk of injury by 60 percent when compared with a seat belt alone, says the National Safe Kids Campaign.

In the 1990s, booster seats for older children were available but not required. Lap and shoulder belts secure both the seat and the child.

“Seven years ago, we were offering a pretty stripped down, bare-bones booster, and so was everybody else,” Mr. Kiser said. “It was what it was. It did the job.”

Beginning with California and Washington five years ago, states began to require the booster seats for children up to age 8.

The laws have spread to 26 other states, including six that are implementing the requirement this year. Legislation is pending in several other states.

The booster seat business has grown from about $20 million in 2001 to $100 million per year. Evenflo says its sales have increased by 46 percent in the past three years.

Booster seats for older children range in price from $129.99 to as low as $19.99 for a backless version.

Although Ohio doesn’t require car seats for older children, Jennie Brubaker, 33, of London, bought one for safety reasons for her 4-year-old daughter, Rachel.

The seat is roomy and has a place to store markers, keeping Rachel busy when the family makes its regular two-hour round trips to visit relatives. Rachel, who picked out the seat, was persuaded by the cup holders.

“She loves it,” Mrs. Brubaker said. “She didn’t have anywhere to put her sippy cup when she was in a car seat.”

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