The History of Children’s Car Seats

Written by Bonnie Gringer

Buckling a child into a car seat may be one of those things that parents don’t think much about, thanks to advances in car seat design and safety. But there was a time when occupants of cars were not restrained at all. Since the invention of cars, safety and restraints have evolved significantly. Children’s car seats of today are designed specifically for use by children of different ages, weights, and heights for optimal safety. Parents have many choices for restraint systems with various designs and features.

Initially, the purpose of car seats was merely containing children so they could not climb around the interior of a car while it was in motion. This may have been more for the convenience of the driver than to ensure the safety of a child. Some of the first car seats were designed for children to ride in the front seat in an elevated position so they could see out of the windows. Gradually, car seat design changed to focus on the safety of child passengers. Seat belts were incorporated into car seats to secure them and the child.

In the late 1960s, Ford designed the first car seat restraint for children with crash protection in mind. General Motors followed shortly after with its first car seat designed for rear-facing installation in the vehicle. During the 1970s, this push gained momentum. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration adopted the initial federal standards for child seating systems in vehicles in 1971. Crash tests for child car seats began during this decade, and manufacturers began developing car seats that would pass these tests.

The NHTSA rates car seats to ensure that they meet federal standards for crash performance. Parents can review these ratings to ensure that they are using adequate car seats. The NHTSA uses a star system to help consumers, with five stars indicating excellence and one star indicating poor performance for a car seat. While all car seats rated by the NHTSA meet federally mandated standards, they do differ in ease of use and features.

Even with these advances, children still face significant safety risks as passengers in cars. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracked child passenger deaths between 2002 and 2011. During this time, child fatalities resulting from vehicle crashes decreased by 43 percent, but more than 9,000 children still died in car crashes. Some of these fatalities occurred due to the failure to restrain children in a suitable car seat, while others occurred because of incorrect installation or use of car seats. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, vehicle accidents are a leading cause of death for kids.

It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of using and installing car seats correctly in a vehicle. Riding in a car seat that’s appropriate for the child’s age and weight and installed correctly in the vehicle can increase the child’s likelihood of surviving an accident by 45 percent. Many local municipalities offer fitting stations for parents to visit to receive assistance with car seat installation and use from safety experts. Experts currently recommend that babies and toddlers up to age 2 should ride in a rear-facing car seat. When a child reaches the maximum height and weight limitations for the rear-facing car seat, parents should switch to a forward-facing car seat. When a child reaches the upper limit for height and weight for a forward-facing car seat, parents should switch to a booster seat that features a special system for positioning the seat belt across the child’s shoulder and lap. Kids should remain in booster seats until they are at least 4 feet 9 inches in height, usually between 8 and 12 years old. After this time, children are generally big enough and old enough to ride with a standard seat belt.

One of the most common mistakes parents make with car seats is moving a child up to the next type of car seat too soon. Parents should also check car seat labels to find the expiration date of their seat. Most car seats expire around six years after manufacture, and parents should not continue to use a car seat past this date.

Learn more about the evolution of children’s car seats and their use by visiting these online resources: