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Car seat shortages feared as scramble on to comply with new rules for bigger kids

Olivia Lehmann, 3, sits in the back of her mom's car sitting in a child car seat playing on her fathers iPad in Richmond, B.C. November 3, 2010.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The federal government has ordered manufacturers to create bigger children's car seats to accommodate heavier kids, which is prompting the companies to warn of shortages by spring.

About six months ago, Transport Canada unveiled new safety regulations for car seats, and in response manufacturers are making a number of physical modifications, such as increasing their widths and adding more padding to strengthen them. The rules are supposed to go into effect on Jan. 1, raising the weight limit for infant seats to 10 kilograms from the current nine, and for booster seats to 30 kilograms, up from 22.

Consumers will still be able to use their current car seats after new regulations take effect. But once they're in place, companies will only be permitted to sell seats that comply with the new standards.

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The changes are driven partly by the trend of children getting bigger over the past two decades, Transport Canada said. Experts blame shifting lifestyles, including high-calorie food consumption, more time spent in front of the computer or television, and mothers switching earlier to feeding their babies formula rather than breast milk.

"We encourage and foster the development of obesity knowingly or unknowingly," said Canadian obesity expert David Lau, a professor of medicine at the University of Calgary. "That's the byproduct of becoming a wealthy nation."

According to Statistics Canada, 26 per cent of children between the ages of 6 and 11 were overweight or obese in 2004, up from 13 per cent in 1978. Among two- to five-year-olds, 21 per cent were overweight or obese in both those periods.

The regulations will require newly designed seats to undergo a series of tests, including collision tests with bigger crash-test dummies, before they are sold. But Canada has had only one qualified compliance testing centre to approve new models - and the Toronto-based location is booked until mid-March. Another one was recently set up for compliance testing in Montreal, but it will take time to get up to speed, manufacturers say.

As a result, it's possible companies won't be able to get enough car seats on to store shelves early next year. In the past, manufacturers said, the government's testing has been done on a gradual basis, so the companies have been able to use their own certification testing centres and then have the seats go through the compliance testing. Manufacturers and retailers are lobbying the government for more time to comply with the regulations.

"It's really quite a conundrum," said Michael Dwyer, executive director of the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association in Mount Laurel, N.J., which represents many of the Canadian players and is in talks with government officials to seek a one-year extension. "There is a concern about a paucity of seats."

There are at least a dozen CRS manufacturers doing business in Canada, Mr. Dwyer added, but a large portion of sales are concentrated with three companies: Evenflo, Dorel and Graco.

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The push for car-seat changes is also prompted by data showing the use of child restraints cuts car-collision deaths dramatically. Between 1993 and 2006, the number of child passengers who died in motor-vehicle accidents dropped by 50 per cent, according to Transport Canada, which attributes the decline to improved design and greater use of child restraints.

Companies in the highly regulated $150-million-a-year car-seat market can be significantly affected by rule changes. They can lose business if they're not ready with properly tested products, or if consumers hold back purchases out of confusion about safety standards.

"Children's safety equipment is like almost no other category," said Jim Danahy, managing principal at CustomerLAB, a Port Credit, Ont.-based consultant to a wide range of retailers and suppliers. "When it comes to children's safety equipment, these are areas where you see herd behaviour ... The last thing any parent wants to do is put their child into something that is less safe."

Mr. Danahy said that if consumers decided to wait to buy seats approved under the new regulations, "you could see a complete, market-wide recoil from purchasing, which could seriously and unnecessarily damage the industry."

The reforms also are a bid to catch up to U.S. car seat safety rules, an objective that is backed by the major car seat makers, including market leader Dorel Industries Inc., of Montreal. The companies generally produce seats for global markets and would benefit from the harmonization of North American rules. They say many of their products already meet or exceed the new standards.

But manufacturers say they will be in a tough spot because Canada's new testing regulations aren't identical with the U.S. standards. As a result, they can't ship seats made for the U.S. market to Canada. Without amendments, the Canadian changes could spark product shortages early next year, jeopardizing tens of millions of dollars worth of sales.

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Manufacturers began producing seats for larger children in Canada a few years ago when Ottawa introduced temporary regulations calling for the redesigns for bigger children. Mr. Dwyer said many companies have been doing internal tests to meet U.S. standards, but they won't be able to change their systems to comply with new Canadian rules by Jan. 1.

Billions of dollars of liability are at risk if manufacturers and retailers don't get it right, they say. "A class action lawsuit having to do with the death of a child can run into the billions," a lawyer familiar with the sector said. "You want manufacturers to just hurry up and do this? This is a huge litigation headache for manufacturers. They have to dot their i's and cross their t's."

Melanie Quesnel, a spokeswoman for Transport Canada, said in an e-mail that the department is in talks with the car seat industry to review its concerns "and to take actions if necessary." As to the manufacturers' dilemma of the limited compliance testing facilities, she said: "Transport Canada is committed to a smooth transition in the supply of child seats to the market."

In a subsequent e-mail, department officials said they "may choose to perform compliance testing at one or multiple test labs, as is the case in the U.S." They said a second lab in Canada is now available to perform compliance testing, and that some U.S. labs "could perform such testing." Mr. Dwyer countered that it can take months for labs to get up to speed.

Mr. Dwyer insisted that current car seats are safe, and have already met or exceeded the new standards in many aspects. But manufacturers are still working on how they will reconfigure their products to comply with the new Canadian rules, he said.

Retailers such as Sears Canada Inc. referred questions to the Retail Council of Canada. "Our No. 1 concern is the safety and availability of child-restraint systems for Canadian children and that is why we are working with the manufacturers and government officials on a solution," said Terrance Oakey, a vice-president with the retail council.

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Retailing Reporter

Marina Strauss covers retailing for The Globe and Mail's Report on Business. She follows a wide range of topics in the sector, from the fallout of foreign retailers invading Canada to how a merchant such as the Swedish Ikea gets its mojo. She has probed the rise and fall (and revival efforts) of Loblaw Cos., Hudson's Bay and others. More

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