Friday, November 13, 2009

Carseats for the Carfree

Do you really need a carseat for your kid if you don't have a car? Even carfree families need to drive or ride in a car sometimes, in a rental car on vacation, a cab to the airport, or carpooling with friends. Our kids are in cars enough (mostly during out-of-town trips) that it makes sense to have seats for both of them. But which seat is the right one? This is a difficult question to answer. Most of the available carseat information addresses seat safety under the assumption that the seat will be installed permanently in one car, ideally by the police or at the fire station by someone trained in safe installation. Unfortunately, that information doesn't help parents who need to carry the seat around to carshares or taxis (lighter is better), install both quickly and correctly (fancy or confusing straps? Not going to happen) and will need a seat to fit in many kinds of cars. Throw in the prospect of shelling out tons of cash for a seat that gets used just a few times a year, and it gets very frustrating.

Kids, who are legally required to be restrained until 4'9" and 80 pounds in MA, will need multiple seats before they can ride with seatbelts alone. Our approach has been to borrow an appropriate infant seat and then, once H grew out of that one, purchase a relatively light, cheap, and relatively easy-to-install convertible seat that works both rear and forward facing. We purchased an Evenflo Titan which has served it's purpose reasonably well. However, this seat has some drawbacks, the most obvious being that its shoulder strap height rear-facing does not accommodate a child until anywhere close to the AAP recommended two years of age, and suffers a similar shoulder strap height problem forward facing.

In consultation with some smart parent friends, we have tracked down some great suggestions for carseats for the carfree.

If you are expecting an infant, the Combi Coccoro (reviewed here) might serve you well. It is very light, installs without a base (convenient for folks doing more frequent installs and removals), and even though it truly is an infant seat, it also fits kids up to 40 pounds with a fairly high height limit. Even better, even though it is a light and simple seat, it has a relatively high rear-facing weight limit of 33 pounds, and word is that the shoulder straps are positioned high enough that you actually can get close to that weight (unlike our seat, which even though it has a weight limit of 30 pounds rear facing, didn't have nearly enough shoulder strap height to make that a reality) . That won't get all kids to age two rear facing, but it will get many of them there. This seat is pricey at about $160, but it takes the place of both an infant seat and a convertible toddler seat, so if you were planning to buy both anyway, this might be the way to go.

The height/weight limits on the Coccoro should serve you until your child is big enough for the RideSafer Travel Vest (beware the obnoxious music on this link), which positions regular seatbelts to secure a child from 30-60 pounds. When there is no shoulder strap on the seatbelt, this vest needs to be additionally secured with a tether, and not all cars and cabs have tethers, but virtually all will have either a tether or a shoulder belt available. This is a new version of this vest, and the low-end of the size limit has been reduced to 30 pounds, 34 inches & three years old (used to be 35 pounds). This is a very good thing, because the range has now dropped to where many kids can ride with this vest straight out of a low-end convertible carseat like our Evenflo. In fact, that's just what H will be doing as soon as we place our order. We have word from a New York friend with the older version of this vest that installation works well, their 4 y.o. is happy to wear the vest, and that most cabs there actually have a top tether. Note also that there is a larger size for a child up to 80 pounds, though I'm guessing a 7 or 8 year old might resist wearing the vest. I'm guessing we'll switch to a backless booster when H grows out of the vest.

Another good find for an older child might be the SafeGuard Go Hybrid (reviewed here). The Go Hybrid is a forward facing seat that folds up when not in use, making it a good choice for families where a seat spends much more time in storage than in a car. It isn't nearly as compact as the travel vest, but it does have a much lower starting weight of 22 pounds. It also has a nice high 60 pound weight limit in the five point harness, which is something that carseat enthusiasts love as a safety feature, and can go up to 100 pounds as a backless booster. Thus, as soon as your child can sit forward facing, this seat should see them all the way through their carseat years. One word of warning though on this seat: it must be used with a top tether, which not all cars have, and even when they do have them, the tether attachment can be hard to find (every car is different). If you frequently ride in older cars, or don't know in advance what kind of car you'll be riding in, this might be a significant drawback.

Another option out there that might be nice for the carfree, particularly if you do a lot of air travel, or have a long walk to your carshare, might be the Sit 'n' Stroll, which is both a stroller and a fairly standard convertible carseat. However, those wheels make the Sit & Stroll heavy, so unless you really will be using it frequently as a stroller, it might not quite be worth the hefty price tag ($250) or the extra weight getting in/out of the car. Another feature of the Sit 'n' Stroll, unlike either the Go Hybrid or the Travel Vest, is that is is FAA approved for air travel.

Please let us know if you have experience with any of these seats, or what your solution has been to the carseat problem. We have friends with these seats, but haven't used them ourselves so we can't vouch for them specifically. However, we will be getting the travel vest soon, and will absolutely report back once we've given it a try.

I'd like to thank many friends who provided information & experience for this post, and have clearly done their carseat homework: CCB, Party B, Estelle (who tipped us off to the Coccoro), Shelli (a carfree NY mom and big fan of the Sit n' Stroll and Travel Vest), and Jen (who pointed us to the Go Hybrid). Thank you!


Jen said...

I do hope you'll post your opinion of the RiderSafe Vest. I've had my eye on that for a while, but it's tough to justify buying a new carseat when we already have one and we don't own a car.

As far as I know, all infant bucket seats can be installed with or without the bases. This is certainly true of the Graco seat and the chicco seats.

I've met several people using the sunshine kids convertible car seat when flying. The car seat folds up and can be carried on your back. That's convenient for travel and probably convenient for an occasional car seat as well.

Also the costco scenera is cheap and serviceable. It's often on sale for less than $50. I know a lot of people who use it as a second car seat or buy one for a grandparent's car. If you want a cheap, convertible car seat for occasional use, it's a good choice.

We have the Britax Marathon seat. We bought it before we sold our car so we weren't thinking about the carfree aspect then, but we've been really happy with it. It's fairly lightweight, but somewhat bulky so it takes up a lot of closet space to store. It's really easy to install and uninstall with latch. It also fits into the seat of my umbrella stroller and I can secure it with bungee cords so that I can stroll the carseat over to the parking lot where the carshare car is parked. (I've even put my toddler in the carseat in the stroller on occasion although I'm sure no one would recommend it.) We usually store the carseat in the closet, but we've used it as a toddler chair on occasion by just letting it lean up against the wall for stability.

Lex said...

Shoulder strap height should not be an issue rear-facing (straps should be BELOW shoulder height when rear-facing anyway). A child is too tall to rear-face in a seat when their head is within 1 inch of the top of the shell.

I'm quite pleased with the Sunshine Kids Radian 65, and think it would be a great (albeit heavy) option for a car-free family. The seat folds for storage and has a carry-strap that makes it quite manageable to tote around (at least in comparison to most seats). We took 3 radians with us on our trip to New Mexico a couple years ago, and I was easily able to carry two plus a one-year-old (in a carrier) through the airport. It's also a seat that truly fits a newborn baby well (not true of most convertible car seats), and is one of the more comfortable options for older kids (our 50-lb. nearly-7-year-olds still fit great in ours). It's also made with many fewer chemicals than most car seats, and lasts for 8 years before it expires (most car seats expire after 6 years) due to it's steel construction. The only downside to the Radian is that it does have a bit of learning curve to get it to install well in most cars. Best to learn all the tricks from a technician or someone else very familiar with the seat.

The benefit of the britax seats for a car-free family would be that they are certainly among the easiest to install and use, in all types of vehicles, and without much trial and error. My favorite is the boulevard, but the marathon is great too. These are notoriously bulky and awkward to carry (though less heavy than the radian), and would require more storage space when not in use.

(I was a CPST (child passenger safety technician), though my certification has expired).

inkandpen said...

Thanks so much for this post-- super timely for us, as I've been putting off the decision and been getting very grouchy about the whole thing. Last night, amidst some intense-but-ultimately-fruitless contractions, I went ahead and bought the Coccoro on Amazon. We'll let you know what we think!

Sarah said...

We were carfree when my older daughter was born and although we had a second hand carseat we left the hospital with out a car seat--we took the city bus home!

Bus Chick said...

This is probably a really stupid question, but I'm gonna ask:

What's a tether and where would I look for it in a cab/rental car?

Bus Chick said...

P.S. - Thanks for this informative post. We borrowed an infant seat with our first and then purchased the Britax Marathon (we heard that Britax has a good safety record--though now there's a question about whether car seats are any more effective than seat belts for children two and older...I digress). The Marathon is a fine seat, but it's not really ideal for car-free types--or for folks living in small spaces who have storage issues. I wish we'd thought through this issue and done more research before we purchased.

So, with baby #2, I'm doing my homework. Your post was right on time!