Car Seat Safety: Tips for Parents
How to choose and install the right seat for your child
By Katie Sweeney
Car seats are a critical part of keeping your child safe on the road. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, they reduce a child’s risk of death in a crash by up to 71%.
And yet, experts estimate that more than half of all car seats are not installed correctly. In addition, many parents “graduate” a child to the next level of car seat too soon. These mistakes put children at risk for serious injury in a crash.
How can you make sure your child’s car seat is safe? Here’s what you need to know.
Which type of car seat is best?
Infants and small children
Use a rear-facing car seat. California law requires that children under 2 years ride in a rear-facing car seat (unless they weigh over 40 pounds or are more than 40 inches tall). But many children should continue to ride rear-facing even after their second birthday.
Children should ride in a rear-facing car seat until reaching the seat’s maximum height or weight limit. This includes not just babies and toddlers, but also many petite preschoolers.
A rear-facing seat spreads the forces of a crash more evenly across the back of the seat and your child’s body. The rear-facing position offers protection to the head, neck and spine. When children face forward too soon, their large heads and weak necks take the brunt of the impact—which leads to serious or fatal injuries in a crash.
Use a forward-facing seat with a harness. The five-point harness is critical for protecting your child. Again, it spreads the forces from a crash more evenly across your child’s body than the three-point harness of a regular seat belt.
The smaller your child, the more protection he or she needs in a crash. Most children will need to be in a five-point harness until they are at least 5—and many will need it until age 6 or 7.
Use a booster seat. A child is ready for a booster when that child has outgrown the maximum height and weight limits of the five-point harness—and is mature enough to sit properly (no slouching or taking their body out of the shoulder vehicle belt) for the entire ride.
Expect your child to ride with a booster for many years—until he or she reaches at least 4-foot-9. Many children, especially girls, don’t reach that height until age 11. An 11-year-old who is 4-foot-8 still needs a booster.
Why? If a small child rides without one, the seat belt comes across the stomach and neck—instead of the legs and shoulder. This can lead to serious spine and neck injuries in a crash. Don’t risk it!
Installing a car seat can be tricky. Every seat is different, and every vehicle is different. Here are some tips:
- Watch the manufacturer video. Since car seats vary, it’s important to watch the installation video provided by the manufacturer of your particular seat. Read the directions carefully.
- Ensure the car seat does not move more than one inch in all directions. This can be accomplished by locking the seat belt or using the car seat lock-off mechanism (if available). Follow the car seat manufacturer instructions.
- Make sure the harness fits snugly. For rear-facing seats, the harness should be at or below the shoulders. For forward-facing, it should be at or above the shoulders. In both directions, the harness should not be loose enough that slack can be pinched.
- Use the seat belt or LATCH system. Use only one of these methods to secure the car seat. Never use both! The LATCH system has a 65-pound maximum weight limit of child AND car seat. Choose whichever method you can use correctly every time.
- Don’t get creative. Some parents modify the car seat, thinking they can make it safer or more comfortable.This is not allowed by the manufacturer and may make the seat less safe. Follow the directions exactly.
- Ask the experts. Many car seats are installed incorrectly. Nationally certified Child Passenger Safety Technicians (CPST) are available to assist you in ensuring your car seat is installed correctly. CHLA has CPSTs who can help with your child safety needs.
More tips for a safe ride
- Say ‘no’ to the front seat. Children under 13 should never ride in the front seat. In a crash, the air bag deployment could seriously injure a younger child. The backseat is safer for everyone.
- You may need multiple seats. If a friend or relative drives your child, then that person needs to have the proper car seat for your child in that car. Make sure you are providing the car seat and installation for your child.
- Check the expiration date. Did you know that car seats expire? Most seats last six years. Check the label. If it’s expired, replace it. Also, replace any seat that has been involved in a crash. Do not buy a used car seat as you have no way of knowing the history of the seat or if it has been in a crash.
Free car seat inspections
Children’s Hospital Los Angeles offers free car seat inspections and classes for parents and caregivers. This is the best way to ensure your child’s seat is safe. Virtual inspections and classes are available during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Below are some of our free car seat safety resources. Check them out, buckle up—and enjoy a safe ride!