Keeping your kids safe is probably the number one consideration families keep in mind when researching a new vehicle to buy. High NHTSA star crash test ratings and IIHS Top Safety Pick lists substantially impact the sale of family sedans and SUVs, but all your research could be for naught if you don’t follow car seat laws and don’t properly install your child’s car seat or booster seat. Safety seats greatly reduce the risk of injury to your infant or child during accidents, but about 75 percent of car seats are either installed or used incorrectly, heavily sacrificing the level of protection they offer your child. So how should you utilize a car seat effectively, and at what age should you be graduating your child up to a booster seat?
Laws have some divergence depending on which region and state you’re in, but many legislations have been following the suggestions of the American Academy of Pediatrics to keep your child’s safety seat rear-facing past the age of one. Studies have shown that children who are riding in rear-facing car seats are five times safer from crash forces thanks to the added support to their back, neck, and head. The NHTSA also suggests keeping a child in a rear-facing position until they have outgrown their harness-strapped cradle seat’s height and weight maximum recommended by the seat manufacturer, usually to age three. Then, from age four to age seven, you should keep them in a forward-facing tether-strapped cradle unless their height and weight calls for early graduation to a booster seat. Booster seats should be used to twelve years of age, or until your child is 4’9” in height. Size, and never age, should be the deciding factor of when your child is ready to graduate to the next safety seat.
As of 2002, every car sold in the United States has needed to be equipped with multiple rear-seat LATCH systems, or Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, which has made installing your car seat quicker and easier than before. It’s still a complicated process that needs utmost attention to securely install your car seat. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reports that about one-third of parents will still use the LATCH system ineffectively, with 81 percent of errors not extremely obvious unless you know what you’re looking for. Our partners at DCH Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram Fiat (Temecula, CA) note that every product should come with a set of individual instructions of how to properly install your child’s safety seat, so check with your brand and model and carefully follow their directions.
You’ll want to use either the LATCH system or the seat belt method to secure your car seat, never both at once. While IIHS crash tests have shown that the center of the rear seat is the safest position for car seats, many vehicles still only build their LATCH system into either the left or right seats. You can either barrow a LATCH from each side to situate your car seat in the center (only applicable if you have one child seat to install) or use the classic seat belt securing method. If this is your chosen method, you’ll want to be sure you have the seat belt in locking mode by pulling its length fully out then allowing your car to click the strap firmly in place. It’s always worth learning about the seat belt securing method, as certain vehicles only suggest the LATCH system to be used up until your child and car seat together reach a weight of 65 pounds. Your child safety seat should fit snugly between the two front seats. If there’s some wiggle room, you’ll want to move it either to the left or right rear seat to assure you have the tightest fit possible. A good fit on the side is far preferable over a loose fit in the center.
Next, you’ll want to adjust your seat’s straps to properly fit your child. Both harness and tether straps should be snug enough to slip a finger under, with about a quarter-inch space recommended. Children’s backs should be flush to the back of the car seat with the chest strap sitting level with their armpits. All straps should lie flat, as well, without any twists or knots. You should never adjust this length when it comes to fitting in more bulky winter clothing. Accommodating winter coats and additional layers can add as much as four-inches of excess length to your child’s straps that ultimately serves as slack when under crash forces. Layers and blankets are key in the colder months so that your child continues to sit flush and snugly in their seat.
Car seats are complicated, but they don’t need to be such a headache when keeping the directions and firmly placed orientation in mind. These days, there are even Child Passenger Safety technicians and instructors who you can consult or hire to correctly install your child’s safety seat! Research your child’s safety seat just as closely as you research the overall safety ratings of your next car to ensure your kids get the most protection you can supply while out on a drive.