baby talk

The History of Car Seats

Chicco KeyFit35 ClearTex Infant Car Seat image

Today, we rely on car seats to keep our little travelers safe during our daily adventures or long road trips. However, car seats weren’t always a requirement, and many were designed as a novelty rather than crucial to child safety. The initial purpose of these early car seats was to address the inconvenience of having a toddler moving freely in the car, posing a distraction to the driver. In fact, prior to the 1960s, even adult seat belts were optional in all motor vehicles.

Parents and caregivers often resorted to makeshift solutions to keep children still in the car. Parents would often hold them on their laps, use regular household items to fashion makeshift restraints, or allow them to sit freely on the back or front seats.

The development and mandatory implementation of seat belts in the 1960s marked the beginning of a shift toward recognizing the importance of safety for all passengers. This eventually led to the evolution of the modern, safety-focused child car seat.

Initially, early models elevated children so they could see out of the car windows. This perspective would gradually transform as child safety in vehicles became a primary concern, leading to today's sophisticated, safety-focused car seats.

Trace the evolution of car seats through the years from their invention to the present day and see how designs and intentions have shifted over time.

Bunny Bear Car Seat image
Bunny Bear Booster Car Seat. Photo Credit: Ronnie Schreiber

1930s: Bunny Bear Booster Seat

In the 1930s, the Bunny Bear Company invented one of the first child car seats ever made. Initially, this car seat was not designed with safety in mind but rather to elevate children so they could see their surroundings during car rides.

Over time, this car seat evolved to include toys, a steering wheel, and other features to engage the child's attention.

1940s: Canvas and Metal Frame Boosters

By the 1940s, child car seats saw a modest advancement in design with the invention of seats made from metal frames and canvas. These seats, equipped with over-the-seat metal hooks, provided a slightly more comfortable experience than the Bunny Bear Booster. However, they remained primarily unsafe by modern standards. Similar to a playground swing with a high back, their design indicated a continued focus on the child's visibility and comfort rather than safety.

The Jeenay Car Seat image
The Jeenay Car Seat. Photo Credit: Ronnie Schreiber

1962: The Jeenay Car Seat

In the 1960s, Jean Ames, a British journalist and mother, invented the first car seat with safety in mind. The Jeenay Car Seat was the first car seat intended for backseat use. It also had more comfort and safety features in mind, including a 3-point harness system and foam pad. The Jeenay Car Seat also functioned as a high chair and would eventually be updated to include a 5-point harness system.

1963: Guys and Dolls Safety Car Seat

Like Jean Ames, Leonard Rivkin invented one of the first safety-centered car seats. Rivkin invented the Guys and Dolls Safety Car Seat after a car crash where his car was hit from behind. The accident caused his son to fly from the backseat into the front seat and land at his mother’s feet.

Fortunately, his son was unharmed, but the accident inspired Rivkin to create a car seat. This rear-facing car seat would feature a steel frame and a 5-point harness system.

1964: Swedish Rear-Facing Car Seat

Professor Bertil Aldman at Chalmers University in Sweden noticed that astronauts in the Gemini space capsule lie on their backs during a launch to help their bodies withstand the force during takeoff.

Aldman would apply this concept to head-on collisions and note that it is safer for babies to be rear-facing in a car seat. With this knowledge in mind, he designed a rear-facing car seat and developed the T-Standard, a rigorous Swedish certification for child car seats focusing on stringent neck load criteria during frontal collisions to ensure maximum protection for children. This guideline was nearly impossible for forward-facing car seats to meet and is still used in Sweden today.

The Ford Tot-Guard Car Seat image
Tot-Guard and Love Seat. Photo Credit: Ronnie Schreiber

1968: Tot-Guard and Love Seat

A few years later, in 1968, US auto manufacturer Ford Motor Company took a different approach to child passenger safety, designing the forward-facing Tot-Guard child restraint system.

Later that year, General Motors created the forward-facing Love Seat for toddlers and the rear-facing Infant Love Seat. Both of these were secured with the vehicle's seat belt or a 3-point harness.

The Bobby Mac Car Seat image
The Bobby Mac Car Seat. Photo Credit: Michelle Pratt

1970s: The Bobby Mac

In the 1970s, the Bobby Mac Car Seats introduced the first convertible car seats to the market. Convertible car seats offer two modes: rear-facing for infants and forward-facing for toddlers once they meet the height or weight requirements.

The Bobby Mac Car Seats used 3-point- and 5-point harness systems, depending on the model. Like the Ford Tot-Guard, some Bobby Mac models had a fold-down shell to protect the child’s torso. The vehicle seat belt would lay across the shell to secure the child.

While car seat manufacturers were beginning to make leaps and bounds on their own to keep our little explorers safe, it wasn't until the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) and other regulatory bodies stepped in that car seats became the secure restraint systems we see today. Learn more about the landmark laws and regulations that helped shape the future of car seat safety below.

1971: Safe Installation Requirement

In 1971, NHTSA established its inaugural standard for child safety seats, requiring these seats to include a safety belt to secure the seat itself to the vehicle. At this time, the NHTSA standard did not include crash testing, focusing instead on ensuring that car seats could be properly and safely installed in vehicles.

1980s: Crash Testing

During the 1980s, more stringent Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards were enacted for child restraint systems. Among these standards were rear-facing infant restraints, car beds, and forward-facing restraints for children under 50 lbs.

These new safety standards would force manufacturers to crash-test each model at 30 mph. Manufacturers would also have to meet new criteria, including buckle release force (so children could not release the harness themselves), special labeling, and instructions.

1985: Car Seat Laws Introduced in the U.S.

By 1985, every state in the U.S., including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, had established laws mandating the use of child safety seats, marking a significant milestone in child safety on the road.

1996: Air Bag Requirement

In 1996, NHTSA introduced significant amendments to airbag safety regulations to respond to growing safety concerns. These updates mandated the inclusion of clearer warning labels and provided the option for installing cut-off switches in vehicles not equipped with "smart" airbags.

This decision came after 21 children tragically lost their lives because of the force exerted by passenger airbags during deployment. The new regulations aimed to enhance passenger safety, especially for children, by making airbag systems more adaptable to various occupants.

1997: Car Seat Safety Technicians and ISoFix

NHTSA launched a nationwide initiative to certify child passenger safety technicians and instructors to combat car seat misuse. This program aimed to ensure caregivers could properly install and use child safety seats.

The introduction of ISOFIX marked the debut of the first vehicle anchor system designed to secure car seats directly to the vehicle, setting the stage for the future LATCH system, which aimed to make car seat installation more intuitive.

2002: LATCH and Booster Seat Laws

In conjunction with "Anton's Law"—a law passed by Congress in 2002 to extend vehicle safety standards to children over 50lbs—Congress mandated the creation of stringent testing requirements for booster seats and including lap-shoulder belts in the rear center seats of new vehicles.

This law led to the widespread adoption of the Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) system in 2003. LATCH was designed to simplify car seat installation by providing standard anchor points, ensuring new vehicles were equipped to protect children better.

2007: The First Rotating Car Seat

A significant innovation in child car seat design was introduced in 2007 in Europe with the launch of the first rotating car seat. This groundbreaking car seat featured the ability to swivel 90 degrees to the left or right, greatly easing the process for parents to place and secure their little ones in the car.

The design of rotational car seats simplified installation and minimized the risk of incorrect use, enhancing child safety and making family journeys more convenient and enjoyable.

Are car seats safer than seat belts?

Yes, NHTSA estimates that using child restraints correctly reduces fatalities by 71% for infants younger than 1 and by 54% for children 1 to 4.

How did people travel with babies before car seats?

Before the widespread use of car seats, many people traveled with babies by having the mother or another passenger hold the baby during the journey. Others used a bassinet or cradle placed on the car seat, or car hammocks–all of which were perilous options.

When were car seats invented?

The first car seat was invented in the 1930s. However, their sole purpose was to give kids a boost and occupy their attention. The first car seat created with safety features was rolled out in 1962.

Who invented the infant car seat?

In 1962, Jean Ames designed a car seat that incorporated the vehicle's seat belt. Jean Ames’ car seat was similar in design to modern infant car seats.

When did car seats become mandatory?

Car seats became mandatory in every U.S. state in 1985. Still, it would take time for parents and guardians to learn how to correctly install a car seat.

Should you use old car seats?

No, it is not recommended to use old car seats, especially those from the 90s and early 2000s found on resale sites, due to significant safety advancements and updates in laws since their manufacture. Additionally, car seat components deteriorate over time, and each seat has an expiration date.

From rudimentary beginnings to innovative designs, the evolution of car seats throughout history underscores a continuous commitment to safety and comfort in the United States.

If you’re ready to elevate your child's travel experience, consider Chicco car seats. Our seats are an important part of safe travel, your peace of mind, and the comfort of your little one on every journey.

For more helpful insights, tips, and ideas on all things related to child care, check out the Chicco Baby Talk blog!