Wearing a seat belt is the number one thing you can do to protect yourself in your vehicle, and it’s significantly increases your chances of surviving an accident. A car seat is what will protect your child while you’re on the road; an unrestrained child is much more likely to be killed in a crash.
For maximum safety, here are the things all parents must know about car seats.
Some states have stricter or more comprehensive car seat laws than others. You can look up your state’s Child Passenger Safety Laws at the website SaferKids.org. State laws are minimum requirements, but they may not necessarily be the safest possible way to use a car seat. Follow the recommendations below, most of which are given by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Height and Weight Limits
There are many different brands of car seats, and children of any given age can vary greatly in size. The absolute safest thing you can do for your child is to keep them in their car seat until they exceed the height and weight limits of it – regardless of their age. Age guidelines are simply general ideas, because it is not your child’s age that will impact their safety in a car; it’s their size.
Rear-Facing Child Seats
Children under the age of 1 should always ride in a rear-facing seat. They may ride in an infant car seat, which usually only fits a child until they are approximately 20 pounds. A convertible car seat can also be used. Convertible car seats are rear-facing seats that can be turned forward-facing when the child is large enough, and then sometimes into booster seats, too.
It used to be recommended that children not ride forward-facing until after 1 year of age. But now experts agree that children under the age of 2 should sit rear-facing, because it is significantly safer for them.
Forward-Facing Child Seats
Children generally move to a forward-facing car seat when they are over the age of 2, although they should remain rear-facing until they reach the weight limit, which is usually around 40 pounds.
Children usually move to a booster seat when they’re over the age of 8, although they should stay forward-facing until they reach weight limits, which are usually around 65 pounds.
Your child should not sit without a car seat or booster seat until they’re large enough to properly fit a seat belt. A seat belt fits properly when it lies across your child’s upper thighs (not stomach) and stretches across their chest and shoulder (not neck).
Additionally, children should ride in the back seat until they are at least 12 years old. Because of air bags, your car may have its own height and weight guidelines for when a child can safely sit in the front seat, so check your car’s owner’s manual.
It is estimated that a very high majority of car seats are improperly installed, making them unsafe. To make sure your child’s seat is correct, visit the website SaferCar.gov to find a child seat inspection station near you, where state experts will make sure your seat is properly installed, free of charge.
Heather J is a mother and a police officer. In tandem with her husband Tim they just introduced a service focused on car seat, vehicle upholstery and car carpeting cleaning.