Car accidents are the #1 killer of children ages 1-14.
Yet 3 out of 4 people use their car seats incorrectly, even though using a child restraint properly can reduce the risk of death by up to 71% in a crash.
That’s why we got together with Child Passenger Safety Technician Kristen Gardiner, to provide you with the definitive guide for car seat safety.
Please read the guide and share it with other parents you know.
You may save a child’s life.
Did you know that car crashes are the #1 killer of children ages 1-14?
This is why nothing is more important than proper car seat safety.
The startling truth is that 33% of American children (ages 12 and younger) who died in 2011 were not restrained.
This doesn’t include the nearly 150,000 children who were injured—some very seriously—in crashes.
If you’re thinking, I properly restrain my child, know this:Between 72 and 84 percent of child restraints have shown critical misuses. These basic misuses significantly increase your child’s risk of bodily injury during a motor vehicle accident.
In this case, what you don’t know, could potentially harm your child.
The bottom line: It’s been stated that up to 96 percent of parents believe they use their child’s car seat safely — when related injury stats show otherwise.
In this case, what you don’t know, could potentially harm your child.
A lack of education and awareness could result in the unthinkable. That’s why you need to know for sure whether or not your child is sitting in the right car seat and whether that seat is being used properly.
It is time to get the facts straight.
These stats will make you rethink your child’s current car seat, as well as your approach to their ultimate safety. When you take a proactive approach, you could potentially save your child’s life:
The good news?
Although preventable injuries and deaths still occur, as seat belt safety has improved, the number of children who are killed or injured has decreased since the 1970s — but there’s still far too many parents that do not understand the importance of car seat safety.
Just remember, when you take the right steps, you can significantly reduce your child’s risk of injury.
It’s important for moms and dads to discuss this issue and bring light to the subject — as it could save a life.
Take, for example, Rachel McNamara, a mom whose picture went viral after showing the importance of proper car safety
(side note: don’t actually do this with your child at home and risk dropping them!).
After strapping your child into their car seat, ask yourself if you’d be comfortable flipping it upside down. Remember…
Most of us know that a car seat’s ultimate purpose is to protect a child from injury or death during a potential collision.
But exactly how do they provide that protection?
Knowing some of the facts about what happens in a crash will help you understand:
However, if you find this chapter too technical, feel free to skip to the next chapter and find out whether you are using the correct car seat.
While riding in a car, our bodies travel at the same speed as the car. The vehicle and our bodies will continue to travel at that same speed until some type of force is applied to stop us.
In a crash, the vehicle is stopped abruptly by an external force such as another vehicle or object on the road. Those riding in the car will continue traveling at the original speed until something stops them. That something will apply a force on their body.
The amount of force it will take to stop a person in the car can be approximated by multiplying their weight by the speed they are going.
For example, a 20-pound child traveling 30 miles per hour can have up to 600 pounds of force applied to their body to stop them.600 pounds of force can cause serious damage, and that’s why we need safety mechanisms.
The goal of the car seat is to reduce the force on your child and spread it out across the strongest parts of their body.
The goal of car seats, seat belts, and other safety features in vehicles is to:
That’s why you must always refer to your car seat’s manual and ensure that the seat is secure.
Don’t know how? Don’t worry — we will get into all of this, plus more, later in this guide.
To visualize the difference in how an unrestrained person and a properly restrained person experience the impact of a collision, consider the everyday activity of jumping on a trampoline or a rebounder.
When a person comes into contact with the surface of the trampoline, it stretches and slows their fall until they come to a temporary stop before bouncing back up. Car seats and seat belts are designed to move in a specific way similar to this stretching motion.
On the other hand, if a person jumping on the trampoline falls or jumps to the ground instead, their fall is stopped abruptly and increases the chance of injury.
This type of impact is what we are trying to avoid.
Seat belts were designed to distribute and direct stopping forces to the strongest parts of our body (sternum, shoulder, pelvis). However, seat belts are designed for adults and children won’t experience the same benefits of a regular seat belt that adults will.
This is where car seats and belt-positioning-boosters come in.
A car seat works based on a combination of its basic parts. Each key feature plays a role, ensuring that children who are using a seat appropriate for their age, height, and weight are protected in case of a crash.
The reason why a car seat’s design is so important, is based on a child’s body.
Children are NOT small adults in terms of their developing bodies. A child’s
all develop with age, and based on the development of the child, this will change how their body interacts with a restraint system.
As we will discuss in the following chapters, in order for your child to be properly protected, your decisions of which car seat to use and where to position the car seat MUST be based on the child’s age and size, and proportions.
One of the most important factors when protecting a child, is their head — as a child’s head exhibits a heavier center of gravity. At the age of 3, for instance, a child’s head is generally around 80 percent of the adult mass — meaning, in comparison to a child’s body, their head is proportionately larger.
Depending on your child’s stage of development, they will require a unique variation of child restraint systems (car seats and boosters) due to the way in which their body would hypothetically move if an accident occurred.
The safest car seat for a 17 lb 6 month old baby will not be the safest car seat for a 30 lb 2.5 year old child.
The safest car seat for a 17 lb 6 month old baby will not be the safest car seat for a 30 lb 2.5 year old child. Having the right car seat for the right child is key in keeping them protected in the car.
Having the right car seat for the right child is key in keeping them protected in the car.
With all of this in mind, let’s take a closer look at how car seats actually work in terms of your child’s head and body.
Scientific testing has been completed comparing these varying seats. In one key study, it was found that when a ‘child’ dummy was placed in a rear-facing seat, in comparison to a forward-facing seat, neck injury criteria was reduced.
So, when it comes to how car seats actually work — you need to ask yourself, which seat is appropriate for my child and vehicle?
Let’s dive into the types of car seats on the market and what they mean in terms of child safety.
Deciding which type of car seat will be appropriate for your child and also meet other requirements you may have can seem daunting.
But it is critical to get this right.
This chapter will break down the different types of car seats, what features they provide, and which seat is the right one for your child.
The kind of seat your child needs will depend on:
Here is an image from the CDC that sums up how to pick a car seat type by age.
Here are the different types of car seats:
This car seat can ONLY be installed rear-facing.
Infant car seats are appropriate for children who are:
Many parents choose to begin with an infant seat because it is more convenient:
An infant seat has a base that stays in the car, while the carrier can be snapped in and out of multiple vehicles with their own bases. Many times this seat comes with a stroller as part of a travel system..
This makes it easier to quickly carry the baby from place to place and keep them out of cold or hot weather.
However, an infant car seat lasts for just one year and it is recommended that children stay rear facing until age 2. This means that a convertible seat may also need to be purchased in order to remain rear facing to two years old.
When a child becomes too heavy — or too tall, it’s time to switch to a convertible car seat.
A convertible car seat can be installed rear-facing or forward-facing, but plan to rear-face your child as long as possible.
It can be used for newborns over 5lbs, or when an infant grows out of their infant seat.
Convertible car seats are appropriate for children who are:
Follow guidelines based on the seat and only switch to forward-facing when the child is ready (recommended age is 2+).
This seat can be used as a harnessed forward facing seat or as a belt-positioning-booster seat.
Combination seats are appropriate for children who are:
When a child grows out of the harness of their forward-facing seat, a booster seat can be used by properly positioning a vehicle’s seat belt system.
High-back models are recommended for increased support of the head, neck, and torso and for additional side impact protection.
Booster seats are appropriate for children who are:
If the child can’t sit properly the entire time, this seat can’t do its job.
Children as old as 9-11 will likely continue to require a booster seat until they are as tall as 4’9” and can fit properly into an adult seat belt (see “the 5 Step Test”).
Weight limits can vary greatly — know your region’s laws and always follow the manufacturer’s directions.
This seat combines all modes of child restraint systems into one model, which can be cost effective, taking a child from birth to booster.
Some all-in-one car seats may not fit all children and vehicles in the same way, so it is important to carefully review your seat before purchasing it in order to be aware of the pros and cons of the way it fits in different ages and stages.
All-in-one car seats are appropriate for children who are:
When we talk about the “orientation” of car seats, we are usually refering to the direction of the car seat: rear-facing vs. forward-facing.
This is a very important transition that should not be rushed. We know that rear-facing is up to five time safer for children, reducing the chances of severe injury and death.
The visual guide below provides insight into the approximate age of your child in relation to the type of seat they should be using.
Why Rear-Facing Is So Much Safer:
A child’s vertebrae are one of the most important factors when choosing a rear- vs a forward-facing seat (in addition to their head and neck).
A toddler, for instance, showcases vertebrae that are connected via cartilage — not bone. That’s why children’s spines are much more vulnerable to injury than adults.
Over time, these connections close.
Take a look at these photos of vertebrae of children ages 1 and 6:
Vertebrae age 1 and 6. Photo Credit: White, T. Human Osteology, 2000
You can see how the 1-year old child still has open vertebrae (with cartilage spaces instead of bones), while the 6 year old has almost closed ones.
These open vertebrae can stretch up to 2 inches. But we don’t want that to happen!
It only takes 1/4” stretch to rupture the spinal column. This can result in death or paralysis during a car crash.
This is why it is imperative not to transition a child to the next stage of car seats before they have fully outgrown their current stage, especially when it comes to the transition between rear-facing and forward facing.
We want to provide the most protection possible to the head, neck, and spine.
Regardless of your parenting style, facts are facts. This key study shows that based on statistics from 15 years’ worth of crashes, the odds of severe injury for forward-facing infants under the age of one is 1.79 times higher than those in rear-facing seats; and for children between 12 and 23 months old, the odds were 5.32 times higher.
For a more in-depth explanation on the benefits of rear facing, please watch this video:
There are several common rear-facing car seat myths in relation to this orientation that can unnecessarily worry some parents. Fortunately, many of these concerns can be resolved by gathering more information about the issue.
The obvious question now is:
If a rear-facing seat is so safe, why would you switch to a forward-facing seat?
The truth is, we would all be safer rear-facing!
But adult skeletons are much stronger than children’s which is why we don’t ride this way (it would be impossible to drive!).
The benefits of rear-facing are crucial to young children, but slowly begin to diminish the older they get. However, we should take advantage of the benefits of rear-facing as long as we can.
If your child has fully outgrown rear-facing seats, it is okay to turn them forward-facing.
Still not sure when to switch to forward facing?
Take a look at this video that reviews some of the key considerations:
So, what about a booster seat?
Unlike the car seats discussed previously, a booster seat does not rely on a built-in harness, but rather positions the vehicle’s safety belt in order to restrain a child. Of course, these seats will be forward-facing and require an optimal fit. The lap belt should be laid across a child’s thighs — not their stomach. Read more here: current booster evaluations.
Once you know what type of seat you need and what orientation your child requires, it is time for you to pick your ideal brand and model.
Please follow this step-by-step guide in order to find the best possible car seat for you.
Step 1: Know the TYPES of car seats
You need to make sure you’re familiar with the options available, so that you can make the right choice based on a range of factors. As we discussed in the previous chapter, there are:
Step 2: Know age and size recommendations (from birth until the age of 13)
As discussed, there are specifications based on your child’s size and age:
Some additional points to remember include:
Step 3: Compare all models based on safety ratings and features most applicable to your specific needs
All car seats on the market need to follow strict guidelines, however, some offer features that make them easier to use than others. Some have also included safety features that claim to go above and beyond federal standards.
It is important to note that ALL car seats that are properly installed are safe. No one can definitively determine how much safer one car seat is over another, because federal testing is simply a pass/fail.
We will be adding more reviews as time goes on.
Step 4: Compare the ease of use of the various models you are interested in
NHTSA [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] has evaluated the majority of car seats on the market to determine “ease of use” ratings.
They are categorized based on four key areas of focus:
This table provides an inside look at the car seats that are currently available, so that you can make a more informed decision prior to your purchase: https://one.nhtsa.gov/nhtsa_eou/info.jsp?type=all
Many car seats come with extra features. Some can offer additional safety to your car seat while others are merely for convenience and comfort.
Here are a few lesser-known features that provide added value to your car seat.
Safety Enhancing Features Include:
Convenience Features Include:
Remember, you must select a car seat based on your:
This quick video provides you with further details, so that you can select the best car seat for the needs of your child:
There are several factors to consider when you are deciding where you want to place the car seat inside your car.
Each vehicle model has slightly different rules on what is allowed, which is why it is vital to look through your owner’s manual.
If you don’t know where your vehicle owner’s manual is, many of them can be found online or be sent at your request from the manufacturer.
Check this guide to determine where your car’s manual can be found.
In your vehicle manual you’ll be able to find such things as the location of your head restraints, airbags, lower anchors and tethers (LATCH), and other pertinent information to child restraints and safety.
This information will help you choose the best location for your car seat. If you have several children, it may take some extra planning to decide who goes where. Here are some common questions about seating locations and how to use your manual to find the answers.
Q: Where should I put my child inside my vehicle?
A: In the back seat
Children should always be seated in the back seat if possible. Never, ever place a rear-facing car seat in front of an active airbag.
Q: Is the center rear seat the safest place for my child?
A: Statistics do show that the rear center seat is 43% safer for babies and toddlers. However, that does not make the side seating positions UNsafe. It is most important that you are able to install the child restraint correctly every time. If you cannot get a good installation in the center position or your vehicle does not allow it to be installed there, then install it in one of the rear side positions.
In your vehicle manual, you will likely find reccommendations for seating positions and information about what features are available in each position.
Q: Are all rear seating positions suitable for car seats?
A: Some seating positions may not allow for car seat installation. Here are a few examples of some restrictions you may encounter:
Example of a car with a seating restriction: 2011 Subaru Impreza Vehicle Owner’s Manual
Q: Can I use LATCH in all seating positions?
A: No. LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren) are only available in certain positions. Refer to your owner’s manual to see where these locations are. There are special rules for many center seats on whether or not you can use the lower anchors there.
Example of LATCH locations and restrictions: 2018 Honda Odyssey Vehicle Owner’s Manual
Lower anchors come in pairs. These pairs are most commonly placed in the outboard positions (side seating positions behind the driver and passenger). Federal guidelines dictate that lower anchor must be spaced 11 inches from its mate. If lower anchors aren’t clearly marked as a pair, then do not use them that way.
Example of a vehicle that does not allow use of lower anchors in the center seat: 2017 Honda Accord Vehicle Owner’s Manual
If your vehicle does allow for using LATCH in the center, and the distance between the lower anchors is more than 11 inches, you will need to check the car seat manual to see if they allow it to be installed there. BOTH the vehicle manufacturer AND the car seat manufacturer have to approve this “non-standard spacing” in order to use LATCH. Otherwise, you will need to install your car seat with the seatbelt instead.
Example of a car seat that does not allow non-standard LATCH spacing: Graco Extend2Fit Manual
Q: Do I have to put the car seat in a seat that has LATCH?
A: No. Most car seats can either be installed in an equally safe manner with a seatbelt OR lower achors (LATCH). Use the method which is easiest for you to install and is permitted by both the car seat and vehicle manufacturers. Never use both (unless specifically mandated by the car seat manufacturer). Always use the tether anchor for forward facing children regardless of whether you use the seatbelt or lower anchors for installation.
Q: How do I decide which child goes where?
A: Take all the factors into consideration and prioritize them.
Many parents wonder if they should install their seat using the LATCH system or the seatbelt, and if it matters which one they use.
The short answer is that they are equally safe when used correctly.
But you only choose one or the other—lower anchors and tether (LATCH) or the seatbelt and tether—never both.
Here’s an introduction to the difference between using a seatbelt versus the LATCH system for installing car seats:
Let’s learn a little bit more about the LATCH system.
LATCH stands for: Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren.
The LATCH system was created as an alternative way to install car seats in vehicles. This system is composed of two lower anchors and one tether anchor in a vehicle seat for use with car seats. LATCH was intended to simplify the process of installing car seats so parents would find it easier to install their car seats correctly.
The federal government has established regulation for the use of LATCH.
All vehicle models 2003 and newer must provide two sets of lower anchors and three tether anchors. These anchors are typically made from metal bars or other similar hardware.
Most lower anchors and tether anchors should be labeled in your vehicle or shown in your vehicle manual. Child Restraint Systems (car seats) are required to be equipped with lower anchor and tether connectors (a special combination of straps and hooks).
There are weight limits for using the lower anchors in LATCH.
The weight of your child plus the weight of your car seat cannot exceed 65 pounds (or 69 pounds in newer forward facing car seats).
Newer car seats (manufactured after 2014) have a prominent label on the car seat stating what the weight limit for your child is. You can also find this information in your manual.
Once your child exceeds the weight limit for the lower anchors, your car seat MUST be installed with the vehicle seat belt (but you should still use the tether anchor when forward facing with your vehicle seat belt).
Graco Extend2Fit Label showing the weight limits for lower anchors
If you don’t have LATCH available, your child is over the weight limit, or there is another reason you aren’t comfortable with using it, you can install your child restraint with the vehicle seatbelt.Using the seatbelt is just as safe as using LATCH if you can get a tight installation.
Your seatbelt needs to have a locking mechanism in order to be able to use it to safely install a car seat.
Look for instructions in your vehicle manual about how to lock your seatbelt. If you don’t know if you are able to lock your seatbelt, contact a Child Passenger Safety Technician for free assistance.
Here are a few basic steps to keep in mind as you prepare to install your car seat. Steps will vary, so always read your car seat and vehicle manuals.
The Inch Test Demonstration:
You’ll find more detailed information about installing your specific type of car seat within these specialized guides below. Many of them include a very helpful video demonstration.
See full list of installation videos and guides here.
|Type of Car Seat||Lower Anchors (LATCH)||Seatbelt|
|Infant Seat||Infant Seat|
|Forward-Facing||With Tether||With Tether|
|Combination Seat||Combination Seat|
|N/A||High-Back Booster Seat|
|N/A||Backless Booster Seat|
Now you’re ready to put your child in the car seat. Rear facing seats and forward facing seats have a 5-point harness that needs to be buckled a certain way.
Here are a few important things to keep in mind when buckling your child in the car seat. Always remember to read your manual, as these are only general guidelines.
You can view the pinch test in-action here:
Rear Facing and Forward Facing Harnessing Checklists in the Graco Extend2Fit Manual
Belt-positioning booster seats (and if you are using your combination/all-in-one seat in booster mode) have a different setup. They don’t need to be tightly secured on the vehicle seat the same way that a harnessed seat does. This is because the booster seat itself isn’t restraining your child during a crash; but rather the seatbelt is. The purpose of a booster seat is simply to allow the seatbelt to do its job correctly by positioning the seatbelt over the strongest part of your child’s body.
Following instructions for booster seats is just as important as installing a car seat.
Most belt-positioning booster seats work in a similar manner. Here are a few basic tips to installing your booster seat. As always, read your manual to determine the exact steps for your booster seat.
Proper belt fit in a high-back booster.
Proper belt fit in a backless booster.
In order to further protect children, all states have implemented laws based on specific criteria.
These generally applies to three key stages, as discussed earlier:
Most state laws are only a bare minimum and may not necessarily give you all the information of what is considered the “best practices” in car seat safety.
Laws are being updated all the time, so parents should try to stay up to date with current laws in your state of residence as well as any places you may be traveling.
If a parent is found to be breaking the law, it will not only act as ‘wake-up’ call, but will also present itself in the form of a fine — carrying from $10 to $500. In some cases, your driver’s license points mat also come into play.
So, what are some of these laws?
According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, here’s what you need to be made aware of:
Each state then enforces variations of the law based on their specific legislations. Access all state laws here — and make sure that you and anyone whom drives your child from point A to point B follows both state and federal laws.
As stated in a 2013 review, uneven policies exist from state-to-state, suggesting a strong need for improved communication among researchers, advocates, legislators, and citizens. However, if you follow the best practices outlined in this guide, you will almost always be meeting or exceeding all state law’s requirements.
Here are some examples based on varying states:
This chapter contains important information that we couldn’t fit into the rest of the guide.
Child Passenger Safety Technicians
There are safety programs offered across the nation, ensuring proper certification. The National CPS Certification has inspired over 40,000 technicians to become advocates within their community.
Don’t be like this mom:
We have certainly covered all aspects of car seat safety, but there’s still an area that needs to be addressed — recall information. Like most things in life, a proactive approach is always best.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) states on their website:
“Did you know that the safest place for your child on an airplane is in a government-approved child safety restraint system (CRS) or device, not on your lap? Your arms aren’t capable of holding your child securely, especially during unexpected turbulence.”
Find tips on flying with children, instructions for car seats on planes, and more on the FAA Website.
Here are 2 instructional videos that you will find useful:
Cleaning and Care of Car Seats
Cleaning a car seat seems pretty straightforward, but each manufacturer develops specific guidelines for the cleaning of their seats to ensure it stays in good working condition and that no parts become compromised. Your car seat manual will tell you everything you need to know about caring for your specific seat.
A few rules of thumb usually apply:
Example of Cleaning instructions in the Graco Extend2Fit Manual
Special Needs Transportation
Most conventional car seats are appropriate to use for special needs children as long as they possess the features that can address the needs of their condition. Specialized restraints are available when this is not the case. It may be helpful to seek the assistance of a Child Passenger Safety Technician who is trained in special needs to locate these specialized restraints.
It is even more vital that children with special needs not be rushed to the next “stage” of child restraints. Children with low muscle tone should remain rear facing as long as possible. Children with behavioral challenges may not be ready to ride in a booster seat until a few years older than the average child.
Find more information about special needs transportation on the Automotive Safety Program’s website.
Rachel Fink is a writer and mom of 7 kids. She keeps her sanity by keeping a stash of chocolate and coffee nearby.