Car Seat Safety Basics

Every parent knows that it's important to use a car seat for their children, but did you know that nearly half of all car seatsare installed or used incorrectly? Or that of the children aged 12 years and younger who died in fatal crashes in 2013, 38% of them were completely unrestrained? That's not all. Consider these important statistics for car seat use:

  • Motor vehicle injuries are the leading cause of death among children in the United States (CDC)
  • Car seat use reduces the risk of death for infants by 71% and 54% for toddlers in passenger vehicles CDC)
  • Using a booster seat reduces the risk of serious injury by 45% for children 4-8 percent (CDC)
  • In 2013, restraint use saved 263 children ages 4 and younger. They saved an estimated 10,421 children between 1975 and 2013 (CDC)

It's obvious you should use a car seat to protect the health and safety of your children when they're riding in a vehicle. Follow these tips to properly select, install, and use car seats for your children:

  • Use a car seat: It's a no brainer, but worth mentioning: never skip out on using a car seat when your children are passengers in a vehicle. Not for a quick taxi ride, not even for a spin around the block on grandpa's lap. Accidents can happen at any time, and your children should always be safe in their car seat in any vehicle.
  • Choose the right car seat: Car seats are not one size fits all. As children grow, they will need a different seat. Note, however, that there are some convertible car seats on the market today that can be adjusted to fit your child from birth to booster seat. Car seats range from rear facing seats to forward facing seats and boosters, and will change depending on your child's age, weight, and height. SaferCar.gov offers a simple guide to finding the right car seat for your child's age and size.
  • Install your car seat correctly: A car seat is safest when it is installed properly with less than one inch of movement from side to side and front to back at the belt path. You'll need to follow the manufacturer's instructions carefully to get the right fit and installation. Some car seats and vehicles will use the LATCH system, while others will use a seat belt. However, you should never use both a seat belt and LATCH, as this can put too much pressure on the car seat during a crash. Note that not every car seat will fit your vehicle appropriately, so you may need to change car seats to get the right fit.
  • Register your car seat: Your car seat should come with a registration postcard for you to fill out. This isn't a toaster warranty that you can put in a drawer and forget about. Go ahead and fill out the registration and send it in immediately. This will allow you to stay on top of product updates and safety recalls with automatic notifications from the manufacturer.
  • Rear face as long as possible: Many parents are eager to turn their children around forward facing in the car so that they can see and interact with them while driving. However, it is safest for children to remain rear facing up to three years, sometimes beyond if the child continues to fit in the rear facing seat. You should keep your child rear facing until they reach the top height or weight limit set by your car seat's manufacturer, only moving them forward facing when they've outgrown the seat. Similarly, it's important to avoid moving to a booster seat too soon. Wait until your child has reached the highest weight or height for his or her five point harness forward facing seat.
  • Pay attention to strap placement and tightness: Strap heights will change depending on rear or forward facing seats. In a rear facing seat, straps should be at or below the child's shoulders. Forward facing seats should have straps at or above the child's shoulders. The chest clip should also be adjusted so that it is aligned with the child's underarms. Do the pinch test to determine if the straps are tight enough: if you can pinch the strap fabric, they are too loose.
  • Check expiration dates: Car seats are made to last for years, but they don't last forever. Materials break down over time with use, and can become weak and unreliable in a crash. If you're reusing car seats among multiple siblings, you may discover that your car seats are out of their safe operating lifespan. Most car seats last five years or more. Be sure to check the bottom of your car seat to find out if the seat you want to use is still good or not. Expired car seats should have their straps cut and disposed of.
  • Never buy a used seat: Car seats aren't like cars that can be used for years by one owner and passed on to the next one. A car seat could have a questionable past that won't show up in a cursory inspection of the seat. Straps may have been washed and weakened, and the seat may have even been involved in a crash. To avoid the dangerous unknown factors of a used car seat, always buy new. If you must by used, only purchase a seat from someone you know well and trust, and inspect the seat for visible damage or missing parts. Ask them if the seat has ever been involved in an accident, even a minor one. You should also research any recalls, and find out if the seat has been repaired accordingly.
  • Avoid bulky clothing: In an accident, clothing can compress, allowing car seat straps to loosen. That means your child can slip out of their car seat harness, or experience more force than they would if their straps remained tight on their body. Avoid allowing your child to wear bulky clothing, particularly squishy winter coats, while in their car seat. If a jacket is a must, consider one that is made of dense, thick fabric such as fleece or wool rather than a puffy material like down filled jackets. Children can also wear jackets backwards once they are securely strapped into their car seat, or you can use a blanket in the car.
  • Replace seats after any accident: You've just walked away from a minor fender bender. Your kids were in the car, but you don't see any damage to the seats. They're probably fine, right? Maybe -- but maybe not. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that car seats may not need to be replaced after a minor crash, but many car seat manufacturers still recommend a replacement, so you should do so if you are able to. Insurance companies should replace car seats at no cost to you as long as you request that they do it. If they are not forthcoming with a replacement, most common after a minor accident with no visible damage to the car seat, it may be helpful to show them documentation from your car seat's manufacturer that a replacement is recommended in any crash.
  • Get professional help: Even if you think you're doing everything right with your car seat, there's still a good chance you've gotten something wrong. And with car seats, mistakes can be deadly. Get your car seat inspected and find out how to correctly install and use it. Remember to continue to do this as your children get older, not just when you're installing their initial infant car seat.
  • Never leave your child alone in the car, even for a minute: If you leave your vehicle, so should your child. Temperatures can rise to heat stroke levels or even death in a matter of minutes, and it's too easy to forget your child is in the vehicle once they're out of your sight. There is also the danger that your vehicle will be stolen with your child in it, or your child may be abducted from an unlocked vehicle while you're out of sight.
  • Set a good example: Encourage children to use their car seats and avoid unbuckling them by modeling good seat belt use. Always use your seat belt when in your vehicle and avoid placing the straps under your arms or otherwise not as they are intended.
  • Practice defensive driving: Car seats offer excellent protection for children in a crash, but the best way to protect your children in your vehicle is to avoid crashes altogether. Practice defensive driving, avoiding distracted driving, drunk driving, and giving your full attention to the task of driving.

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