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New Child-Seat Maker Has Controversial History

Apr 23, 2002 | USA Today

The shrinking child-seat industry has a new entrant, but Car Seat Specialty is hardly new to the business -- or controversy.

Company President Yves Nania headed child-seat maker Renolux, which folded in 1994 after its sixth recall. Tens of thousands of consumers were left with pricey, defective seats and no recourse.

''People were very angry,'' says Lorrie Walker, head of the child passenger safety program at Florida Atlantic University.

Car Seat Specialty is now selling booster seats called Safety Baby to mass-merchandise stores, including USA Baby, and booster seats called Nania to high-end specialty stores. It hopes to sell infant and convertible seats starting this summer.

Shlomi Tal, who worked with Nania at Renolux in the early 1990s and is executive vice president of Car Seat Specialty, says there was only one ''real recall'' in his view -- the rest were not big safety risks.

''We didn't hire the right people who could deal with NHTSA,'' Tal says of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (news - web sites). ''We were amateurs then. We are professionals now.''

Safety advocates say they still see children in Renolux seats at child-seat checkpoints, even though they should be destroyed because of safety problems and age.

The child-seat business in the USA has been in flux for several years. Kolcraft stopped making child seats in 2000. Fisher-Price left the market in 1993, returned in 1997, but stopped selling seats again last year. In 1998, Newell Rubbermaid, owner of child-seat maker Graco, bought seatmaker Century, which is now a Graco brand.

''The companies just feel like profit margins are so slim, a recall or two can blow them out of the water,'' says Alan Fields, co-author of the book Baby Bargains.

Fisher-Price spokeswoman Laurie Oravec says that when the company returned to the business in '97, it focused on one model with many safety features, but that didn't pay off in sales. Two years ago, Fisher-Price announced it would stop making the Safe Embrace seat in favor of a new line of children's products called Babygear. The line includes almost everything a parent would need -- except a child seat.

Stephanie Tombrello of the non-profit group SafetyBeltSafe was ''very disturbed'' about Renolux's withdrawal from the market after the recalls but says she's pleased it may expand the choices in child seats. She says there are few, if any, choices of child seats for children who are handicapped, wear casts or weigh more than 40 pounds and ride in cars without rear-seat lap/shoulder belts.

Tombrello notes that high-end child-seat maker Britax has offered safety features found on no other child seat. ''We had a much more diverse set of choices 10 years ago,'' Tombrello says. ''Small companies do step in to fill the gaps.''

Thomas Baloga, president of Britax Child Safety, says consumers and his company would benefit from more competition.

''It is bad for Britax because with fewer restraint manufacturers in the USA, we will get added pressure to grow too fast,'' Baloga says. ''Consumers benefit most when companies push each other to higher levels of improvement so they can react quicker to what the children need for better protection and the moms need to solve their problems.''

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