A Guide to Car Seat Safety

Written by Bonnie Gringer

A new child is often an exciting addition to a family, and memories made during family trips to the park, school, or vacation destinations will surely last for decades to come. However, many parents may not realize the special requirements necessary to keep a child safe while traveling in a vehicle. Seat belts were intended and designed for adult use, and not all car seats can be used safely for the full duration of childhood. There are many different varieties and brands of car seats on the market, which can be both confusing and intimidating for parents and guardians. Fortunately, the mystery of finding the perfect car seat can be easily solved by understanding the basic types of seats and how they should work, taking cues from government guidelines as well as car seat manufacturers’ advice.

Types of Car Seats

As a general rule of thumb, parents should use the car seat that best matches their child’s height and weight and fits into the family vehicle. Some car seats are designed to adapt into each different type of required seat as the child ages. The first seat most parents buy is a rear-facing infant seat, which will need to be replaced by a convertible seat once it’s outgrown. A convertible car seat can be either rear- or front-faced; it should be placed in the rear-facing position until the child outgrows the height and weight limits recommended by the seat’s manufacturer. At about two to four years of age, a child will most likely be ready to ride in a front-facing car seat. Booster seats, either with or without a back, are the last type of car seat that a child will use. A booster seat allows the child to safely ride while using a regular seat belt until they are big enough that a booster seat is not necessary.

Installation Tips

While it is true that almost 80% of child safety seats are incorrectly used or installed, this doesn’t need to be a daunting task. The important thing to remember is to take the time needed for installation and to work methodically through each step. However, a few rules of thumb can be used to troubleshoot problems and make sure the seat will function as intended.

For an infant or convertible car seat, it’s generally advisable to place the seat in the center position if the vehicle’s design allows for that option. Never place the seat in the front of a vehicle or in front of an airbag. To check that the seat is installed correctly, try wiggling it. The seat should not move more than an inch in any direction. The chest clip that secures the harness should be adjusted to be at the level of the child’s armpits. Be careful to make sure that the harness and clips are not twisted or inverted, as this could make the harness uncomfortable to wear. A booster seat should also only be used in the back seat of a vehicle, and it should allow a child to wear a regular seat belt with the lap belt securely across the hips.

Common Questions About Car Seats

Every parent wants to make sure that a car seat is safe for their child to use. In the United States, a good car seat should have a label stating that it complies with the requirements set by Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213. If considering a used or second-hand car seat, exercise caution: Make sure that the seat has never been recalled, has never been involved in a vehicle collision, and has not been modified in any way, and check the expiration date on the bottom of the seat to ensure its safety.

Another common question that parents may have is, “How long can my child use the same car seat?” Assuming that the seat is in good condition and not expired, the answer will depend on the child’s size and the seat manufacturer’s guidelines: Check the instructions that came with your seat to find the maximum height and weight limit(s).

Car seats are an excellent investment toward protecting your child, and they can be very versatile in terms of everyday use. Infant car seats may also have a carrying handle, allowing them to be used as a portable bassinet. Rear- and front-facing seats also can be used on airplanes, allowing children to travel more securely and reducing the chance of injury. Child safety seats can be a tremendous asset in daily life and, with proper use and care, they can help ensure fun, safe family excursions for many years.