Top safety recommendations for kids' car seats
Is your child’s car seat as safe as it can be?
Gone are the days of kids riding unrestrained in the “way back,” (yes, wood-sided station wagon, we’re thinking of you!). But that doesn’t mean today’s parents aren’t still making car seat mistakes that can put their kids at risk.
Data shared by Safe Kids Worldwide shows 59% of kids’ car seats are installed incorrectly, and more than half of parents fail to use the seats’ important top tether.
So how can you better protect your kids on their next ride? It starts with understanding your state’s law, choosing the right seat and installing it correctly, and avoiding common car seat mistakes. That includes knowing when it’s safe to transition your child from a car seat to a booster and, eventually, the coveted front seat. (Spoiler on that one – it’s later than almost everyone thinks!)
Car seat laws in Washington and Oregon
In 2020, Washington passed a law that stated all children under 4 feet 9 inches, regardless of age, must use a booster seat to ensure their seatbelt fits properly.
Here’s how car seat laws in Washington break down:
Newborn to age 2: rear-facing car seat
Ages 2-4: 5-point harness car seat (may be rear- or front-facing, depending on the child’s weight and car seat manufacturer specifications)
Ages 4 and up until 4 feet, 9 inches tall: booster seat
Ages 12 and under: Ride in the backseat when practical (excludes pickups, for example, or large families where all children wouldn’t fit in the backseat).
In Oregon, the laws are similar. However, kids under 4 feet 9 can ride without a booster as long as they are 8 or older. Oregon law also does not stipulate riders under 13 must ride in the back.
Here’s how car seat laws in Oregon break down:
Newborn to age 2: rear-facing car seat
Less than 40 pounds: car seat (may be rear- or front-facing, depending on the child’s weight and car seat manufacturer specifications)
Under age 8 or less than 4 feet, 9 inches: booster seat.
Both states’ laws recognize important biomechanical changes that accompany age. Younger children have proportionately larger heads, a greater percentage of cartilage to bone, a less developed rib cage and greater chest wall flexibility. Sadly, those differences make them more susceptible to injury in a crash than older kids or adults. Even if it’s legal for your kids to graduate to the next type of crar seat, it’s usually safer to keep them in their rear-facing car seats, front-facing car seats or boosters until they reach the manufacturers’ max weight and height limits.
How do I choose the right car seat?
Car seat shopping can be confusing because all car seats sold in the United States must meet minimum federal safety standards. So why do some sell for $50 while others can go for $400?
The answer is a combination of function and fashion. When it comes to car seats, you’ll want to go beyond the federal minimum limits to the extent that your budget allows. And remember that buying a designer brand car seat (just like designer brand clothes) can mean you’re paying extra for the look and label without necessarily gaining extra protection.
We recommend you start with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Best Bets list and make sure your choice:
fits your child,
fits your vehicle,
is easy to use every time,
is age-appropriate (rear-facing for kids under age two, front-facing for preschoolers, and booster seats for older kids),
can be installed correctly.
Beyond that, seek features that improve crash-worthiness:
big side wings at the top that keep your child’s head upright in a crash,
straps that don’t twist,
a five-point harness.
Also, don’t just throw away the little registration postcard that flutters out of the box. Take time to fill it out and send it in. That way, you’ll get important recall notices and a chance to get your seat repaired for free if it’s ever found to be defective.
If you’ve already bought a car seat and the registration card is long gone, you can check the manufacturer’s website or call them at the number listed on your car seat’s label. You also can check the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s car seat recall finder. Finally, avoid most hand-me-down car seats. They may have older technology or wear and tear on straps and tethers that would make them less protective in a crash. As a rule of thumb, the Mayo Clinic suggests you replace car seats that are more than six years old. And if you don’t know the car seat’s history? Don’t use it in case it’s been in a crash that’s compromised its structural soundness.
How to properly install a car seat
According to the Safety Restraint Coalition, the safest spot for the car seat is usually the center back seat in a sedan or the center row seat in a minivan, provided that location doesn’t have a “hump” that makes it impossible to tightly secure the seat using either the LATCH hookup that goes directly into your car’s seat or the seatbelt hookup recommended by your car seat’s manufacturer. That location is the farthest away from any potential point of impact. The next best place is the back seat passenger side. (If you drive a pickup and your car seat must be installed in the front, make sure to turn off the airbag on the passenger side.)
Car seats can be tricky to install because each vehicle and car seat is slightly different. Many car seat manufacturers offer videos to help you install yours correctly, and when it comes to installing a car seat, the old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” really is true! These short, easy-to-follow videos from BabyCenter also can help:
How to install an infant rear-facing seat with a detachable carrier
How to install a rear-facing convertible seat
How to install a front-facing convertible seat
If you’re still not sure your car seat is installed correctly, reach out to your local hospital or police or fire station. Many schedule appointments for free car seat safety checks with a certified car seat technician. Safe Kids Worldwide also offers links for parents in Washington and Oregon (click your county on the side of the page) to help you find resources near you.
Common car seat mistakes
Even when they start out with the right installation, seven common mistakes can make car seats less effective:
Failing to use the top tether on front-facing car seats. The top-tether stops the car seat from lurching forward in a crash. That protects your child’s head from hitting the back of the front seat or other occupants. It can make the difference between a serious head injury and no injury at all. The United States has required tethers to be part of car seats since 2001, and passenger cars manufactured since 2001 are required to have at least three tether anchors either in the back of the vehicle seat, the car’s rear shelf or in the ceiling. Still, researchers at Safe Kids Worldwide found that more than half of caregivers don’t use the top tether, either because they don’t know it’s there or don’t know how to attach it. Check out this video that shows where to find them.
Failing to check periodically that the car seat is still snugly secured. Car seats shouldn’t slide more than an inch forward or side-to-side when properly installed. If someone has removed them to haul cargo or vacuum the seat, make sure they were reinstalled correctly.
Leaving on heavy coats that affect the harness’s fit. Instead, buckle the harness over your child’s clothes and lay a coat or blanket on top for warmth.
Allowing the chest clip to slide down over time. Each time you buckle the harness, make sure the clip is even with your child’s armpits.
Not knowing weight limits for your car seat. Try to keep your child in each car seat stage (infant rear-facing, convertible rear-facing, convertible front-facing, booster) until they reach the manufacturer’s weight limits for each. That maximizes your child’s protection in a crash.
Using boosters with a lap belt only. Kids need both a lap belt and shoulder harness when using a booster.
Moving out of booster seats too soon. As much as your kids might love to ditch their boosters, don’t do it until you’re sure seat belts alone fit them properly. That means kids can sit up straight against the seat back and still bend their knees comfortably over the edge of the seat, the lap belt doesn’t creep up over their abdomen and the shoulder harness stays centered on their chest without slipping off their shoulders. And that big move to the front seat? Delay it until age 13 if possible.
Advocating for your family’s safety
PEMCO is a safety pioneer when it comes to preventing head and neck injuries in crashes. We were an early partner with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in improving head-restraint design in passenger cars. PEMCO also was the first insurance company in the nation to sponsor public service announcements urging people to set their head restraints no lower than their ears.
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