The Car Seat Racket

By far one of the most tedious aspects of travel in this season of family life is the daunting ‘hauling of the car seat’.  Heavy and durable, it slides with great effort into a canvas bag that can be carried on the back of whichever parent is the beast of burden for the day.  When I recently arrived in Greece, the driver watched me slowly and methodically shimmy the carseat out of the sack.  I was going too slow.  He insisted on helping. I insisted on not letting him help.  I’ve done this many times and I know exactly how it works.  His hasty efforts would have likely ensured the bag got caught on plastic edges or the metal frame.  He would have to wait.  There’s nothing hasty about traveling with a carseat, and that’s before the notorious install in the car.

We go to great lengths to make sure kids are safe in the car.  Wear your belt! Face forward! Don’t hang your head out the window!  What a luxury.

One year I had an extra car seat, so I donated it.  The refugee agency I volunteered with needed car seats for just-arrived families with children.  Used car seats are an incredible gift.  I’d much rather receive a used, high-quality car seat than spend money on the cheapest available option.  If car seats have no visible damage and still function properly, they save lives.  But that’s not how we’ve been conditioned to think.  

Before I gave away the car seat, I hesitated.  First, it needed a good scrubbing.  I had to consider if the value of donating it was worth the effort to clean the grossness of a car seat, even a car seat from a home where French fries in the car are prohibited.  Yes, actually, the effort required on my part to clean the car seat was worth it for the Congolese family (in this case) who would not otherwise have a seat to use when they were picked up by the shuttle service for the doctor and immigration appointments.  Their other option would be to ride public transport where car seats are not required.  Or some, not understanding that U.S. laws are strict on matters of safety, might decide to ride in a car with a child on their lap – and pay the much higher price of a fine or seriously injured child.

More specifically, however, the hesitation that precedes donating a car seat comes from commercially motivated conditioning.  We’ve been conditioned to believe that donating a used car seat will potentially kill someone rather than potentially save someone.  Used is dangerous.  Adam Minter writes about this phenomenon in “Secondhand,” published in 2019.  It’s a fascinating, relevant read.

In all the discussion of clothes, cars, computers and the global essential commerce of secondhand goods, he reserves a few pages for the topic of car seats.  Car seat manufacturers place expiration dates on car seats, as if plastic, metal framing and industrial strength straps expire like milk.  Graco’s website, according to Minter, recommends parents don’t just toss or donate expired car seats, but remove the cover, cut the straps and dispose of it in a black plastic bag so no one recognizes it as a used car seat weapon of death (my words).  Forget the fact that containers of used car seats can’t be shipped fast enough to countries near and far for parents eager to protect their children but can’t afford a new car seat (193).  

I learned a lot from Minter’s research into the capitalism of car seats.  Who creates car seat expiration dates?  Car seat manufacturers.  What data is used to set the expiration date?  None. Is it illegal to use a car seat past the expiration date? According to the US Highway Transportation Safety Administration, “there are no actual rules or regulations in the U.S. about using an expired date car seat” (194).  What happens to used car seats that are returned to Target to receive a discount on a new one?  They are destroyed so they can’t enter the high demand secondhand market (195).  Over the last several years, Target has destroyed over 500,000 used car seats through this program.  What a tragedy, when those seats could have found happy homes elsewhere.  

According to a non-profit, non-car-seat-manufacturer-funded organization in Sweden, “as long as a seat hasn’t been in a crash or otherwise exhibits any damage, it’s fine to use” (198).  Car seats are continually redesigned and increase in safety, but most car seats can actually function properly and be safe for more than a decade.  Expiration dates are engineered to drive sales and discourage the secondhand economy, a commercial system many of the world’s population relies on for quality goods (which includes me). [I’d rather buy a pair of good condition, used, high quality jeans than a higher priced pair of new, low-quality jeans, for example].  If I was in a situation where a new car seat costs $500 – import fees for new in some countries can be exorbitant, ensuring only the ultra-rich can afford new – I’d gladly buy a used, good-condition Siege-branded seat any day. (Google ‘Siege car seat’ and see what I mean). 

I paid a lot for the car seat that has traveled with us across continents.  It’s a beast.  I’m pretty sure the straps, metal components and even minimal plastic pieces will far outlive their ‘expiration date’.  Actually, they already have.  And they’ve got miles to go before they’re back home. And years of life to still give.  Let me know if you want it when we’ve outgrown it.  I promise to give it a good clean beforehand.

Here’s a photo of a location the car seat recently visited. Crozet, France:

2 thoughts on “The Car Seat Racket

  1. My kids were always big on not using an outdated carseat. I could never understand why. Thank you. (However, I will refrain from sending them a link to this as an I-told-you-so.)

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