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Not using a safety seat consistently
"We were only going to the grocery store ..." "He hates to ride in his car seat, so just this once I didn't make him ..." "She was having a meltdown, so I took her out of her seat for a minute to calm her down." Safety experts hear these words all too often from distraught parents after tragedy has struck. Remember, a one-time lapse can result in a lifetime of regret.
In any case, using a safety seat consistently and correctly is the law. All 50 states require that children up to 3 years of age (or 40 inches tall in Kentucky) ride in car seats in private vehicles, and many have laws requiring car seats or booster seats until a child is considerably older.
There's good reason for that. Every year, tens of thousands of children are injured in car crashes, and about a thousand are killed. In fact, auto accidents are by far the leading cause of death for American children.
Safety seats dramatically reduce the risk of death or serious injury in a collision. Stephanie Tombrello, executive director of the nonprofit passenger-safety organization SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A., urges all parents to get a safety seat that's convenient to use, and to make buckling your child into it such a habit that you don't even have to think about it.
Download our illustrated guide to car seat safety
Using an old or secondhand seat
That safety seat you scored at a garage sale for a fraction of its original price may seem like a bargain, but it could cost your child his life. The same goes for that older-model seat your sister gave you after her child outgrew it.
Not only are used seats unlikely to come with the manufacturer's instructions (vital for correct installation), but they could be missing important parts, have been involved in an accident (even unseen damage can affect the seat's functioning), fall short of current safety standards, or have been recalled due to faulty design. Moreover, plastic gets brittle as it gets older, so a seat that's too old could break in a crash.
If you must use a secondhand seat, make sure it has the original instructions (or contact the manufacturer for a replacement copy), has all its parts (check the manual), has never been involved in a serious accident, and hasn't been recalled. (Check your seat's recall status here.)
In addition, to avoid the dangers of aging plastic, SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A. recommends sticking with car seats that are ideally less than five years old and definitely less than ten years old. You can usually find an expiration date stamped somewhere on the seat.
Turning your child to face forward too soon
Children have large heads and comparatively weak necks, so in a head-on collision a child's head can jerk forward suddenly and violently, resulting in spinal injuries. For this reason, keep your child rear-facing as long as possible. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says to keep your child in a rear-facing car seat until he reaches the seat's maximum rear-facing height and weight limits, usually around the age of 4.
Moving your child out of his car seat or booster too soon
Though safety-seat laws vary from state to state, all require that children under age 3 ride in a safety seat. Experts are unequivocal in their recommendations for safe riding beyond that age:
- After your child has exceeded the rear-facing height and weight limits of his seat (usually around 4 years of age) your child should use a forward-facing five-point harness car seat.
- When your child exceeds the limits of the forward-facing car seat (usually 60 pounds or more), your child should ride in a booster seat. Get more details from our expert about when kids can safely switch from a car seat to a booster.
- Your child should then ride in a booster seat until the seat belt fits him correctly without a booster, usually when he's 4 feet 9 inches tall. Get more details from our expert about when kids can safely switch from a booster seat to seat belts alone.
You can substitute a travel vest for a safety or booster seat if your car has only lap belts in the back seat or your child weighs more than a safety or booster seat allows.
Not installing a safety seat correctly
A safety seat won't do its job if it's installed wrong. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that three out of four safety seats are used incorrectly.
Among the most common mistakes: Not buckling the car seat in tightly enough, and not using the right type of seat belt to secure your child in his booster seat. Check to be sure that car seats don't tip forward or slide from side to side more than an inch, and that boosters are secured with a lap-and-shoulder belt.
Better yet, use an anchoring system if you can. By law, all car seats and vehicles manufactured since September 2002 must be compatible with the LATCH system, or "lower anchors and tethers for children."
This system combines the previously existing top tethers with lower anchors, built into the rear of the car. Some cars built between 1999 and 2002 also have the system. Toddler/booster combo seats are required to have both the upper and lower attachments; booster seats are not required to work with LATCH.
Owners of earlier model cars may want to consider having their car retrofitted with the LATCH system. Check with your local auto dealership for information on cost and feasibility.
If your safety seat choices seem confusing, look for the NHTSA's 5-Star Ease-of-Use Rating to find one that is easy to install. You can also have your seat installation checked by a professional. Find a child seat safety inspection station near you.
Not using a locking clip or using it incorrectly
If your car is a pre-1996 model, chances are the lap-and-shoulder belts don't lock unless you come to a sudden stop. This means you need a locking clip – a small metal device that looks like an oversize paper clip or capital I – to hold the seat belt (and thus your child's car seat) tight in the event of a crash.
After you buckle your child's seat tightly in place, see if you can move it more than an inch toward the front or sides of the car. If you can, install the locking clip about half an inch above the buckle – not on the other side of your child's car seat, which pinches the shoulder and lap belts together before they're threaded through the appropriate slot in the car seat.
If you've misplaced the locking clip that came with your car seat, get in touch with the manufacturer to order a replacement or buy a new one at a store that carries car seats and other safety supplies.
Not securing your child in the seat
To make sure the car seat harness straps are snug enough to hold your child firmly in the event of an accident:
- Buckle your child in, making sure the harness straps aren't twisted, and then use the mechanism on the front of the car seat to pull the harness tight. You shouldn't be able to pinch any harness fabric between your fingers.
- Slide the plastic retainer clip that holds the two straps together up to armpit level before securing it. If the clip is too low, your child could be ejected from his seat in a crash.
Not buckling a car seat into the car
Believe it or not, many parents who are cited for car seat violations have their child buckled into a car seat but have not buckled the car seat to the car. This may be the result of confusion about how the seats work or just of switching a seat from one car to another on a hectic morning.
To avoid this mistake, when you're putting your child in his seat, double-check to be sure that the seat is buckled tightly to the car. Forward-facing safety seats come with a strap so you can tether the seat to an anchor point in the car. Tethering the seat gives extra protection, helping to prevent head and neck injuries to children if there is a collision.
If you have an older car that doesn't have an anchor, you might want to find out if you can have one installed.
Holding your child on your lap
It's tempting to lift your child out of the car seat and hold him in your arms when he's having a tantrum after hours on the road, or when you're making a quick dash from one place to another with friends and it's easier for everyone to pile into the same vehicle than to take separate cars.
This might seem safe enough. After all, you'd hold your child tight if anything happened, right? But the truth is that even if you're belted in, your child could be ripped from your arms by the force of a collision. And if you manage to get the seat belt around both of you, your weight could actually crush your child to death.
So as much as your child may scream – and as inconvenient as taking your own car is when the two of you could just hop into someone else's – never let your child ride in a moving car unless he's safely strapped into an age-appropriate, correctly installed car seat or booster.
Letting two kids share one seat belt
Don't do it. Crash tests have shown that when two children ride buckled into one seat belt, in an accident their heads can knock together with potentially fatal force.
Letting your child ride in the front seat
Although your child may whine and plead to ride in the front seat with you, the backseat is by far the safest place for him. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends that all children under age 13 ride in the backseat every time they get in the car.
Other tips on safe riding positions:
- If possible, buckle your child into the middle of the backseat, where he's best protected from side-impact collisions. (Of course, if you have more than one child only one can ride in the middle!) If your child rides in a booster seat and your car has only a lap belt in the center back (which is fine for car seats but should never be used on its own with a booster seat), position your child's booster on either the right or left side of the backseat and buckle him in with the car's lap and shoulder belts.
- If you have a passenger-side air bag in your car, that's all the more reason to keep your child in the back. Air bags are designed to reduce injuries in adults, but they can cause serious head and neck injuries to children when they inflate, especially if the child is in a rear-facing car seat. To find out whether your car has air bags, look for a warning label on the sun visor or the letters SRS or SIR embossed on the dashboard, or check your vehicle owner's manual.
- If putting your child in the front seat is your only option (for example, if the backseat is full or your car is a two-seater), check to see whether your car's air bag has an on-off switch. If so, turn it off. If not, have one installed. The NHTSA maintains a list of companies that install air bag on-off switches.
If you can't turn your passenger-side air bag off and you need to transport a child in the front seat, put your biggest or tallest passenger in the front, in an appropriate safety seat, and move the seat as far back from the dashboard as possible.