Every 32 seconds, an American child is involved in a crash while inside a passenger vehicle. In a year, the total number of children injured in motor vehicle accidents is estimated at 120,000. These statistics are understandably upsetting for any parent, but it’s better to be aware and prepared for accidents on the road. While car crash safety systems have come a long way, the best way to protect your children from becoming a statistic is to practice child passenger safety.
The Importance of Child Passenger Safety
When we talk about the safety of children as passengers inside a vehicle, the simplest yet most effective way to protect them from injury is through the proper use of child restraints such as car seats, booster seats, and seat belts. In this guide, we’ll take a deep dive into car seat safety and answer some questions that most parents have.
What happens during a collision?
To appreciate the importance of car seat safety, we must first understand what happens in a car crash. Every collision involves three types of crashes that happen one after the other.
The first crash that happens involves the vehicle. When a vehicle collides with an object or another car, it comes to a stop. In forward collisions, the bumper and the front of the vehicle will get crushed to absorb the impact and reduce the force transferred to the passenger cabin.
The second type of crash happens after the vehicle stops. As the car comes to a halt, the driver and passengers’ bodies continue to move toward the point of impact. It is important that they have restraints on because their bodies are still moving at the vehicle’s original speed. A car seat, harness, seat belt, or airbag will be responsible for bringing the human body to a complete stop.
The last type of crash happens inside the human body. After the vehicle restraints have stopped our extremities from moving, our internal organs continue to move forward until they hit the inside of our body.
The Basics of Car Seat Safety
The importance of using car seats in vehicles that carry child passengers cannot be understated. According to the latest crash statistics by the National Highway Transportation Administration or NHTSA, a total of 325 children ages 4 and below were saved from fatal injuries in 2017, thanks to the use of child restraints. By simply using a car seat, parents can reduce the risk of injury among children by up to 82%.
Children must always use a car seat until they are tall enough for the seat belts to fit appropriately. They should not be allowed to sit in the front seat, especially if there are active airbags in the vehicle. As airbags are designed for adults and older teens, they can be fatal to children. The back seat is the safest place to install a car seat because the majority of accidents that result in injury are forward collisions.
Car Seat Laws in the U.S.
In most states, child passenger safety seats are required for children ages 12 and under. Keep in mind that each state has specific guidelines regarding which type of car seat is recommended for each age group. While manufacturers provide guidelines for the age, height, and weight limit for car seats, don’t forget to check the local car seat laws that are applicable to you.
4 Types of Car Seats According to Age Group
There are four age groups that require different types of car seats and passenger restraints: Infants, Preschoolers, School-aged children, and Adolescents/Teens.
1. Rear-facing Car Seats: Infants and Toddlers
This age group has the greatest risk of injury in a vehicular accident because their spine and neck structures are still developing. At this age, any movement that violently thrusts their head forward can result in serious spinal injury. Using a forward-facing car seat can also injure their internal organs because their ribs can be crushed by the harness during a collision.
Children two years and below must use a rear-facing car seat which is designed to prevent whiplash. In a collision, a rear-facing car seat will distribute impact to the back of the seat which has a larger surface area to absorb force.
Among all types of car seats, rear-facing seats are the safest for your child. Safety experts recommend keeping your child in a rear-facing seat for as long as possible until they outgrow the height and weight limit set by the manufacturer.
Rear-facing Only or Infant Car Seats
This type of car seat is used for newborns until they reach a maximum weight of approximately 22 to 35 pounds. They typically come with a detachable semi-reclined seat that has a carrying handle, and a base that remains fixed in the car. This system makes it easy to move a sleeping child from the vehicle without waking them up.
Convertible Seats (Rear-facing Configuration)
These can be configured from a rear-facing to a forward-facing car seat as your child gets bigger. These generally have higher height and weight limits that go up to 40 to 50 pounds, making it a great option for larger babies. Convertible seats use a five-point harness that attaches between the legs, at the hips, and at the shoulders.
3-in-1 Seats (Rear-facing Configuration)
This type of seat can be used as a rear-facing seat, converted into a forward-facing seat, and later used as a booster seat. A 3-in-1 seat may be used by your child for as long as ten years, depending on the model.
2. Forward-facing car seats: Preschoolers
Once your child outgrows the weight and height limits for rear-facing seats, they must start using a forward-facing car seat with a harness. Children must be secured with a five-point harness as long as possible, at least up until they reach the age of four.
Convertible and 3-in-1 seats
These car seats can be converted from a rear-facing seat to a forward-facing seat as soon as your child reaches the maximum height and weight limits. As a forward-facing seat, convertible seats have limits of 65 to up to 80 pounds, depending on the model.
Combination Car Seats
These are forward-facing only car seats that are designed for children that have exceeded the rear-facing height and weight limits. This type uses a five-point harness which can later be removed to convert it into a belt-positioning booster seat.
By the 2000s, car makers such as Dodge and Volvo started designing built-in car seats for their vehicles. This type of car seat can be stowed away when not in use and relieves parents from the task of securing a detachable seat.
There is still an ongoing debate about the safety of these seats since some cars have these installed on the front passenger seat, putting the child at risk of injury from the accidental activation of the airbags. Emergency workers might also have a harder time removing the child from the vehicle without a detachable seat.
This type of child restraint is an alternative to a traditional forward-facing car seat. It is often used in vehicles that have lap-only seat belts. These restraints are also an option for children with special needs. Travel vests are convenient for traveling since they can be folded and packed inside a suitcase.
3. Booster seats: School-aged children
Children who have outgrown their front-facing car seats may use a belt-positioning booster seat until they reach the required age and height to use a regular seat belt. Unlike forward-facing car seats, these use the lap and shoulder seat belts of your vehicle for restraint. Some models can be attached to the vehicle seat via the lower anchors or top tether, while others simply go on top of the rear passenger seat.
Booster seats are commonly used between ages 8 through 12. A good way to check if your child is ready to move up to a booster seat is if the top of their shoulders are above the harness slots, and when the top of their ears is at the same height as the top of the seat.
Booster seats can be categorized into three types:
High-back Booster Seats
High-back booster seats provide additional head and neck support for your child. These are recommended for vehicles without headrests or have low back seats.
Backless Booster Seats
Backless booster seats are recommended for vehicles with headrests and high seat backs. These are relatively inexpensive and can easily be moved between cars.
Removable Back booster Seats
These are basically convertible car seats that let you remove the back support and harnesses when needed.
4. Seat belts: Older Children and Teens
An adult seat belt can be used by your child on its own if they reach 4 feet 9 inches in height. Most children will be at least 10 or 11 years old before a vehicle seat belt will fit them correctly. Seatbelts should go over the shoulder and between the chest, without touching the child’s throat. Even with a seat belt on, children under 13 years old should only sit in the back seat.
Tips for Buying the Right Car Seat
There is an abundance of car seat models and accessories in the market today. Shopping can get overwhelming, whether you’re buying a car seat for the first time or looking to move up your toddler to a new type of seat. Here are some tips to keep in mind to help you with your search for the right car seat.
Proper fit is more important than price
Regardless of how expensive a car seat is, it can’t keep your child safe in a collision if it does not fit properly. The best car seat for your child is any car seat that properly fits. Your main priority should be to find a seat with limits that cover your child’s age, height, and weight.
Check the date of manufacture and model number
Always check the date of manufacture and model number of the car seat that you wish to purchase. This information is important in finding out if a particular model has been recalled. You may check the NHTSA website for more information on car seat product recalls.
This information is also important because car seats have an expiry date, which is typically stamped or printed on a sticker located at the base of a car seat. Over time, the information can get scratched off, so it’s best to take a picture with your phone so you always have a copy of these details.
Avoid buying used car seats
There are several reasons to avoid buying a used car seat. One red flag is not knowing the history of the product. Car seats that have been involved in a collision, even a minor one, may need to be replaced as recommended by the manufacturer. Buying a used seat puts you at risk of purchasing a seat that has already been compromised in an accident.
Another concern with used car seats is that they rarely come with the instruction manual and often have missing parts that you may not be aware of. If the car seat was handed down to you by a trusted family member who has not been in any road accident, you’ll still need to do your research and find out if the seat you’re receiving has any missing parts.
Register your car seat
Once you have chosen the right car seat for your child, don’t forget to have it registered with the manufacturer. This is important in case the product is recalled. Simply fill out and send the registration card that comes with your car seat.
Proper Car Seat Installation: LATCH and Seat Belts
Always read the instruction manual provided by your car seat manufacturer. If you need help installing your car seat, you may enlist the help of a certified child passenger safety technician, especially for children with special needs.
There are two ways to secure a car seat on the vehicle seat. One way is to use the LATCH system and the other uses the seat belts. Remember never to use both the seatbelt and LATCH to secure a car seat.
The Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children or LATCH system was designed to make car seat installation easier for parents. These car seats have connecting lower anchor attachments and a top tether strap that attach to built-in anchorage points inside the vehicle.
The tether strap is attached to an anchorage point on the rear shelf area, rear floor, or the back of the rear seat of the vehicle. The lower anchors are secured on the anchor points located between the car seat cushion and back.
Rear-facing car seats and convertible seats are typically installed using the LATCH system.
Locked seat belt installation
Older vehicles that do not have the LATCH anchors use a locked seat belt to secure the car seat. This type of installation requires the seat belt to be routed through the slots specified by the car seat manufacturer. To ensure that the car seat is secure, it must not move more than an inch in any direction when moved through the belt path.
Forward-facing car seats such as 3-in-1 and booster seats are typically installed using a locked seat belt.
Car Seat Safety Checks
Follow these five easy steps before driving your vehicle with a child passenger.
1. Make sure that the car seat is safely installed using either a locked seat belt or a LATCH system. Never use both. Apply some pressure on the seat—it should not move more than an inch in any direction.
2. Remove any thick outerwear that may make the harness too loose to restrain your child in an accident.
3. Secure your child with the harness and tighten the straps until you can no longer pinch a slack with your fingers. The chest or retainer clip should be over your child’s chest at armpit level.
4. Be mindful of the height and weight limits of your child’s car seat. Some seats also switch from a LATCH system to a locked seat belt installation depending on your child’s weight. Replace or convert their seat and installation as soon as they reach maximum capacity.
5. Buckle up and set a good example for your child. Being diligent with wearing a seat belt will help them understand the importance of riding in a car seat.