Parents are unwittingly putting children in increased danger because of common car seat mistakes. Here’s how to keep your favorite tiny passengers safe.
Installation rules, manufacturer regulations, confusing gadgetry and ever-evolving laws that vary by age — trying to understand car seat safety can feel like falling blindly into a black hole.
This confusion is a main reason an estimated four out of five car seats are used incorrectly — a scary statistic when you consider that injuries due to transportation are the leading cause of death for children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Car seat safety can seem daunting,” said Brittany Kubricky, a Twin Cities-based doula, certified Child Passenger Safety Technician and mom to four kids. “The truth is we don’t have a lot of control in our children’s lives, but we can control how safe they are when they are riding in our cars.”
When car seats are used correctly, they reduce the risk of death by as much as 71 percent, according to SafeKids Worldwide.
By understanding the most common mistakes, parents can help ensure they’re using car seats properly so children stay secure — at every age.
Mistake: Using a vulnerable location in the vehicle
Many caregivers make the mistake of installing car seats next to the window because it’s easier to get kids in and out.
Unfortunately, in most vehicles that isn’t the safest location for children.
“The safest spot is furthest from any possible impact, this being the middle of the back seat or the second row middle of a three-row vehicle,” Kubricky said. “Try to put the child needing the most protection — usually the youngest — in that spot, as long as you can get a safe install there.”
Mistake: Loose straps and low chest clip
“The harness clip should be positioned at the armpit level,” said Diana Van Wormer, a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician and car seat program coordinator at Regions Hospital (and a mother and grandmother).
“The harness holds the child down low in the car seat so they do not slide up and out in a crash. The clip helps keep the harness straps in position,” Van Wormer said.
Strap tension is another common source of confusion. Many parents and caregivers are surprised just how snug seat straps must be.
Van Wormer said: “The harness straps should be adjusted snug enough so that you can’t pinch any excess webbing at the shoulder or hips once the harness is buckled.”
Mistake: Wearing puffy winter coats
In Minnesota, a warm coat on a chilly day is essential. The problem is those coats give a false sense of security when kids wear them while sitting in car seats.
“When you tighten a harness onto thick or puffy material, it may seem tight to your touch, but in a crash, that material will compress and create too much space between the child and the harness, creating a dangerous situation,” Kubricky said.
Both Kubricky and Van Wormer recommend parents keep kids warm by covering them with blankets or putting their coats on backwards after they’re secured in their car seat harnesses.
Growing awareness has given rise to new products that address this safety concern, including crash-tested Road Coats ($110), made with down and rated to minus-10 degrees. See onekid.com for details.
Mistake: Using forward-facing car seats too soon
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends keeping children rear-facing until age 2 or until they reach the maximum height/weight recommendations for their rear-facing seats.
“Children are five times safer riding rear-facing,” Kubricky said. “In a crash, a rear-facing seat acts like a cradle, not unlike catching a ball in baseball glove. Their head and body move more with the seat. In a crash with a forward-facing seat, the child’s head and legs are thrust forward quite violently, increasing risks of neck and spine injuries.”
Though it’s legal for kids who have reached 1 year of age (and 20 pounds in weight) to face forward in Minnesota, both Kubricky and Van Wormer recommend parents resist the urge to flip their kids around on their first birthdays.
Children should stay rear-facing as long as possible, they said, at least 2 years old (within the limits of their car seats), even if their legs bend.
“I have never heard one child complain about their discomfort,” Van Wormer said. “They tend to cross their legs or sit frog-legged style. I think it is the observer who thinks they are uncomfortable.”
With more than 25 years working as an emergency nurse, Van Wormer’s seen her share of children’s injuries.
“It is quite easy to repair fractured legs, but much more difficult to treat a broken neck or head injury,” she said.
According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, most babies will outgrow an infant seat (typically designed for babies up to 20 to 22 pounds) before age 1.
Parents can then change to a convertible seat — meaning it “converts” from rear- to front-facing as needed — with a higher weight limit.
Some manufacturers have created new models to make rear-facing easier and more comfortable, given the AAP guidelines, such as Graco’s Extend2Fit convertible car seat and Chicco’s Fit2 two-year rear-facing infant/toddler car seat.
Clek’s modern-design Foonf and Filo seats, meanwhile, accommodate kids up to 50 pounds rear-facing and 65 pounds front-facing.
Mistake: Moving to a booster too soon
Parents often move their older toddlers and preschoolers out of a regular car seats prematurely.
Update: Please read this 2020 ProPublica story about booster seat safety issues involving seats that allow children who weight less than 40 pounds.
Children should remain in regular child car seats until they’re at least 4 years old — for as long as the height and weight limit on the seat allow, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. (Many convertible car seats top out at 40 to 60 pounds for their recommended weight limits.)
Many car seat companies now offer 3-in-1 seats, which can be used for three stages — rear-facing, forward-facing and booster (such as Cosco’s Easy Elite), while 2-in-1 seats (also called combination seats), such as the Frontier from Britax, can be used first for forward-facing seating (with a five-point harness) and later as a booster (with the harness removed).
Finally, Graco’s 4Ever all-in-one car seat is designed to take a child from infancy to 120 pounds.
Mistake: Saying goodbye to car seats too soon
Minnesota law states that a child must be at least 8 years old or be at least 4 feet, 9 inches tall to safely use only a seat belt. (However, it is recommended to keep a child in a booster based on height rather than age.)
A seat belts can be used when a child is able to:
- Keep his or her back against the vehicle seat,
- Keep his or her knees naturally bent over the edge of the vehicle seat without slouching,
- Keep his or her feet flat on the floor,
- Stay still for an entire trip.
Finally, children should not sit in the front seat of a vehicle until age 13, Van Wormer said, adding: “Keeping them in the backseat, instead of the front, reduces the risk of being killed in a crash by one-third.”
Mistake: Using expired car seats
Hand-me-down car seats or seats found at garage sales can be OK to use, but it’s essential for parents to know the seat’s expiration date and history.
Every seat has a different expiration date stamped on the plastic body of the car seat or displayed on a sticker on the seat.
“It is important,” Kubricky said. “to discontinue use of the seat when the manufacturer says it has expired.”
Car seats typically last five to eight years, as long as they’re taken care of appropriately and not involved in a crash, Kubricky said.
Car seats involved in accidents, especially if the accident was moderate to severe, may not be safe for use. Find out what constitutes a minor accident — according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — at tinyurl.com/crash-mn.
Mistake: Improper installation
Van Wormer said the car seat program at Regions Hospital has helped more than 600 caregivers in the past year with proper installation of their car seats. Of those residents who arrive at the clinics with car seats already installed, most — an average of 80 percent — are installed incorrectly.
- Some common installation mistakes include:
- Car seats loosely installed; seats shouldn’t shift more than an inch side to side or forward and back.
- Car seats installed using both the lower anchors and the seat belt; it should be one or the other, not both.
- Use of wrong anchors for the seating position
- Harness straps too high or too low
- Not using a tether when required.
The first step to ensuring proper installation is to cross-reference car seat and vehicle manuals. The second step is to ask for help.
Hospitals, clinics, police and fire departments and private experts across Minnesota offer car seat checks, including Regions Hospital, which hosts two to three free car seat clinics a month at various sites throughout the metro area. (See the resources sidebar with this story for details.)
For parents who prefer a private check, Kubricky offers a fee-based service at Flutterby Birth Services in Edina or by appointment at individuals’ homes.
Laura Malm is a writer, editor and storyteller who lives in Woodbury with her husband and two daughters.
Best cars for car seat installation
Each year, Cars.com’s certified Child Passenger Safety Technicians install child car seats in nearly 100 new car models.
Techs test each vehicle’s LATCH system (including its ease of use) by installing an infant seat, a convertible seat and a booster seat.
Cars are graded on an A-to-F scale. Six cars out of 84 from the 2016 and 2017 model year received A grades:
- 2017 Ford Escape
- 2017 GMC Acadia
- 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
- 2016 Jaguar XF
- 2016 Mini Clubman
- 2016 Toyota RAV4
Learn more at cars.com/news.
What about school buses?
We’re so careful about car seats in our personal automobiles. So why don’t school buses have even basic lap belts?
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, school buses are statistically much safer (nearly eight times safer) than passenger vehicles and account for only 0.2 percent of fatal crashes.
Here are a few reasons why buses have such huge advantages over smaller vehicles:
School buses are larger and heavier, which means that the mass and weight of the bus are designed to take the bulk of the crash force.
The chassis of a school bus is designed to separate from the body of the bus in a crash to slow down and spread the crash forces over the entire body of the bus. Buses also are far less likely to rollover in a crash.
Finally, school buses are federally required to provide compartmentalization, which means that the interior of large school buses must provide occupant protection — so that children are protected without the need to buckle up. This is done through strong, closely spaced seats, energy-absorbing foam seat backs and 24-inch seat heights.