The Definitive Guide To Car Seat Safety for Kids *2021 Update

Parents are constantly working to figure out the best ways of protecting their children. In the United States, the biggest safety risk most children face is simply riding in the car. In 2003, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for all children aged two to fourteen years.

While it is important for parents to protect their children from contact sports, illnesses, bullies, and other daily problems, the most important safety measures you take are often right in your own car.

Arash Law has provided this car seat safety guide to help ensure your child is appropriately protected every time you hit the road. We hope this will answer important questions about car seat safety.

If your child is injured in an auto accident, be sure to consult with an attorney as soon as possible. Doing so is the best way to protect your and your child’s important legal rights fully. Call (888) 488-1391 to schedule your free consultation with one of the experienced California auto accident lawyers at Arash Law.

Child Safety Seat Checklist

It is important to select a child safety seat that not only suits your child’s needs but also fits your vehicle and is easy for parents and caregivers to use. No single brand is the “safest” or the “best.”

The seat that is right for your child will be sized appropriately based upon his or her age, weight, and height. It will also fit your vehicle’s seats and be compatible with your seat belt and anchor systems.

The following checklist can help you make appropriate selections when buying a new child safety seat:

  • If you have an infant, be sure that the seat you have selected can be used rear-facing. (Babies should ride rear-facing until they are two years of age or until they reach the highest weight or height limit allowed by the manufacturer of her child safety seat. Some rear-facing child safety seats accommodate infants up to 35 pounds or more.)
  • Check that the seat meets the federal motor vehicle safety standard. This information can be found on a sticker on the side of the car seat.
  • Confirm that your child’s height and weight meets the seat’s rating. The height and weight ratings will be listed directly on the car seat and its packaging. 
  • Practice with the straps to ensure that the harness is easy for you to adjust. You will be adjusting the straps many times, and you want to be sure it is easy for you to secure your child in the car seat each and every time. 
  • The seat is easy to install in your car.
  • If you are buying an infant carrier with a base, be sure to buy a base for each car your child will be riding in often.

If you are buying a used child safety seat, it is important also to check the following:

  • Confirm that the car seat has never been involved in a crash.
  • Check that the seat has not been recalled. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration maintains a website where you can check for all car seat recalls within the past ten years.
  • Be sure the seat is not too old to be safe. Most manufacturers place an expiration date on their child safety seats, which is normally around six years.

RELATED: The Ultimate Guide For Pregnant Women Who Are Involved in Car Accidents (2020 Edition)

Avoiding Common Car Seat Installation Mistakes

It is easy for parents to make mistakes when installing car seats or putting their child in a car seat. Don’t get discouraged. There are many manuals, videos, and other tutorials online that can help you install and use car seats safely. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offers an installation guide on its car seat website.

Many communities also offer free car seat checks through local law enforcement agencies, parent groups, or safety councils. Don’t hesitate to get help with any problems you encounter while installing or using a car seat.  Here are a few tips for avoiding the most common car seat mistakes:

Check the tightness of the installation

A properly installed child safety seat should not be able to move more than one inch in any direction.  Grip the seat at or near the belt path and make sure there is less than an inch of movement (both side-to-side and outward). 

Pay attention to the position of the shoulder straps

On a rear-facing car seat, the shoulder straps should be threaded through slots that are at or below your baby’s shoulders. For forward-facing seats, the shoulder straps should be at or above your child’s shoulders.  The chest clip should always be at the child’s armpit level.

Perform the pinch test

Once the harness is buckled, test the snugness by trying to pinch extra material on the straps at the top of your child’s shoulders. If you are able to pinch extra webbing, the harness is too loose. Make sure to tighten and re-check.

Check the belt path

Convertible safety seats that transition from rear- to forward-facing have multiple slots for routing the seat belt during installation. Check the instruction manual for your child safety seat to make sure the seat belt is routed properly based on the direction of the installation.

Use the top tether

You can further optimize the safety of your child safety seat by using its top tether strap located at the top of the seat. Check your car seat and vehicle manuals for proper use of the tether for your seat. If the use of the tether is appropriate, tightly attach the seat’s top tether strap to the correct anchor point in the vehicle and tighten. Check your car owner’s manual to identify the correct anchor point.

Car Seat Checks

There are thousands of vehicles on the market and hundreds of ways that various car seats can fit into each of these vehicles. It’s easy to understand why installing and using car seats properly is so complicated. This is why it is so important to get advice on the fit of your particular car seat in your particular vehicle.

Car seat checks are available across California. When you go to a car seat check, a trained technician will work with you to teach you the best way to install and correctly use your child safety seat. Free car seat fitting stations are held periodically in most areas.

They are usually scheduled at convenient times and locations (such as car dealerships or store parking lots). If you can’t come to a car seat check, you may be able to contact a child passenger safety technician by phone (sometimes e-mail) with your questions.

We recommend you have the safety of your infant car seat checked for correct installation at an inspection station or a car seat check-up event. By having a trained technician examine your particular car seat, you can be assured that your child is getting the maximum protection possible. To find a car seat fitting station or a certified child passenger safety seat (CPS) technician near you, please visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or Safe Kids USA websites. You can also call your local police or fire department’s non-emergency numbers, your hospital, or your state highway department.

When going to a car seat check, remember to bring:

  • The vehicle your child will be riding in
  • Your child safety seat
  • Your child safety seat manual
  • Your car owner’s manual
  • Your child (if possible)

If you have several children that need to be restrained, please bring them with you along with their child safety seats. A technician can help guide you on the proper placement of each seat in the vehicle.

How Children Should Progress from Car Seats to Booster Seats to Seat Belts

Parents often first learn about safety seats when they prepare to bring an infant home from the hospital. You are often required to have a car seat before you can be discharged from the hospital after delivering a child. When your baby outgrows the rear-facing infant seat, he or she will need to switch to a convertible and/or forward-facing seat, and finally, to a belt-positioning booster. Check out our Car Seat Safety by Age topics to read more about each phase of child safety seats.

Read both your vehicle owner’s manual and car seat instruction manual each time your child moves to a different type of seat. 

  1. Infants should ride in a rear-facing car seat until they are at least age two and have outgrown the height or weight limit on the label of the car seat. Keep them in a safer, rear-facing position as long as possible. Rear-facing car seats offer the best protection for a child’s head, neck, and spine.
  2. Once your child has outgrown the rear-facing car seat, he or she should move to a forward-facing seat with a harness. The forward-facing car seat should be used until your child reaches the weight or height limits on the label of the car seat. Remember to use the car seat’s tether to secure the forward-facing car seat to the car.
  3. Once your child exceeds weight or height limits listed on the forward-facing car seat’s label, they are ready for a booster seat. This chair is used with the vehicle lap and shoulder seat belt.
  4. A child is ready to use a seat belt alone when they pass all three of the following tests: (a) the child’s knees should bend at the edge of the seat when their backs and bottoms are against the vehicle seat back; (b) the vehicle lap belt should fit snugly across the hip bones or upper thighs (not the child’s soft, vulnerable abdominal area)); and (c) the shoulder belt should fits across the shoulder bones and chest (not across the soft parts of the face or neck.)
  5. All children under 13 years of age are safest riding in a back seat.

Car Seat Safety: Premature Babies and Babies with Medical Conditions

Even with the best prenatal care, your baby will sometimes be born with specific medical needs. This can occur if the baby arrives early, has a low birth weight, or is born with medical conditions as the result of genetic anomalies or complications during delivery resulting in an injury. When babies have special needs, hospital staff will want to make sure your baby can travel safely in the car before you are discharged. Infants born earlier than 37 weeks will often be given a “tolerance test,” also known as a car seat test, to see if they can safely travel in a car seat.

Car seat testing is usually done in the hospital within one week before your baby is ready to go home. You will be asked to bring in your baby’s car seat, which he will sit in for 90 to 120 minutes or the length of the car ride home, whichever is longer. During the test, the nurse will monitor your baby’s heart rate, breathing, and oxygen level. If your baby passes the car seat test, he will be able to use the car seat you have provided. If not, the hospital may repeat the same car seat test until the baby passes it, or recommend a different type of car seat. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that medical staff monitor infants with the following indicators before their first car trip:

  • Infants less than 37 weeks gestational age at birth
  • Infants of any age who may not tolerate sitting in a semi-reclined position, such as a rear-facing car seat
  • Infants at risk for apnea, bradycardia, oxygen desaturation or obstructive apnea (e.g., Pierre Robin Sequence)

If your doctor tells you that your baby needs a car bed, it is likely because of concerns with your baby’s breathing and heart rate when he or she is semi-reclined in a traditional child safety seat. Car beds allow babies to lie down while traveling.  The doctor may also order a home monitor to check your baby’s heart rate and breathing.

Car bed safety tips

Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for your baby’s car bed. These guidelines can also help with proper installation and usage:

  • The car bed should be placed in the rear seat so that your baby’s head is in the center of the vehicle, away from the door.
  • Use the vehicle’s seat belt to attach the car bed to the vehicle and be sure that the belt is tight.
  • Place your baby on his or her back, unless otherwise instructed by your doctor. If your baby’s pediatrician recommends that the baby be placed on his or her abdomen while in the car bed, be sure to check in with your doctor frequently and discontinue this practice when it is no longer medically necessary.
  • If your baby needs a breathing monitor or other equipment, learn how to secure it properly to prevent it from moving in the event of a collision.
  • Someone other than the driver should watch the baby and all monitors while he or she is in a car bed.
  • Limit car rides, especially long trips, until your baby is medically stable enough to switch to a car seat. If the car ride is longer than three hours, allow for rest stops every two to three hours so your baby can be out of the car bed for feeding and care.
  • Avoid using baby seats, baby swings, bouncy chairs, backpack slings, and infant carriers until your baby has successfully passed a car seat tolerance test,  or your pediatrician says that it is safe for the baby to be in a semi-reclined position.
  • Be sure that all monitors have plenty of battery life before setting off on a car ride. A good rule of thumb is twice the battery life of your anticipated car ride (for example, two hours of battery life for a one-hour car ride). 
  • Secure any portable medical equipment to reduce the risk of it coming loose and hitting your baby. 

Car Seat Safety: Newborn to 2 Years

Newborns face some of the highest risks of injury in a car accident. This is because an infant’s head and neck are larger in proportion to the rest of the body, and this makes them more vulnerable to head and neck injuries than older children.

This is why it is so important to keep an infant in a rear-facing child seat until at least the age of two. Rear-facing car seats offer added protection to the head and neck.

Head and neck injuries can cause devastating injuries 0 or even death. It is important to offer your baby the most protection available every time he or she is in the car. 

The following are some important child safety seat tips for your baby:

  • Your infant or toddler should ride in a rear-facing car safety seat as long as possible. Even after the age of two, they can ride in a rear-facing seat until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by the car seat. Most convertible seats have limits that will allow children to ride rear-facing for two years or more. Don’t be concerned if your child’s legs bend at the knees or touch the back seat of the car when rear-facing; this will not harm her feet or knees.
  • Always put your infant in a rear-facing child safety seat in the back of your car. A baby riding in the front seat can be fatally injured by a passenger-side airbag.
  • The shoulder straps must be at or below your baby’s shoulders. Child safety seats have several pairs of harness slots so you can adjust the harness as your baby grows. Make sure you use the harness correctly by following these tips:
    • The harness must be snug so you cannot pinch a fold in the harness material after buckling in your baby.
    • The straps should lie flat in a straight line without sagging or twisting.
    • The top of the chest clip should be positioned at armpit level.
  • Never put a blanket between your child and the harness straps, or underneath or behind her. For car travel, don’t dress your infant in bulky outerwear; it can interfere with the tightness of the harness. Instead, place a warm blanket over your child and harness.
  • There should be at least one inch between the top of your child’s head and the top of the rear-facing child safety seat. If the head is encroaching on the top of the seat, it is time to move up to a larger car seat. 

Car safety tips for toddlers

Seat belts are designed for adults – not small children. Children need appropriate car seats in order to be adequately protected in the event of a collision. These tips can help you select an appropriate car seat for your toddler: 

  • Children who have outgrown the weight or height limits for their rear-facing safety seat should be restrained in a forward-facing safety seat that is secured in the back seat of a car. This type of seat should be used until the child exceeds its height and weight limits. 
  • Some infant seats are designed to face only to the rear. Others are convertible, meaning they can be adjusted from rear-facing to forward-facing. A convertible seat can be used for toddlers, but it must be appropriately repositioned to face forward. Follow all manufacturer guidelines to be sure you have repositioned the chair correctly. If your infant seat was not convertible, you will need to purchase a new car seat that is designed to face forward. 
  • The shoulder straps must be threaded through slots that are at or just above your child’s shoulders. The harness must be snug so you cannot pinch a fold in the harness material after buckling in your child. The straps should lie flat in a straight line without sagging or twisting. The top of the chest clip should be positioned at armpit level.
  • You can further optimize the safety of your forward-facing car seat by using its top tether strap located at the top of the seat. Attach the seat’s top tether strap to the correct anchor point in the vehicle. Pull to tighten. Check your car owner’s manual to identify the correct anchor point.
  • You know your child is getting too tall for his forward-facing car seat when the top of his ears reach the top of the seat.
  • Switch to a booster seat when your child reaches the weight or height limit of the forward-facing child safety seat. Remember, a child is not ready for a seat belt alone just because he or she has outgrown the forward-facing car seat.

Types of forward-facing child safety seats

Convertible safety seat: A convertible child safety seat can be used in both the rear-facing and forward-facing positions. Convertible car seats must remain rear-facing until your child is two years of age or until he reaches the highest weight or height allowed by the manufacturer of his convertible safety seat. Check your child safety seat manual or seat label for height and weight limits on your particular model.

Combination child seat and belt-positioning booster seat: You can use this combination seat with the internal harness until your toddler weighs about 40 to 65 pounds, depending on the seat model. You can then remove the harness and convert the seat to a belt-positioning booster that works with the vehicle lap and shoulder belts. For the best protection, use a child safety seat with a full harness until your child has outgrown the weight and height limits before switching to a booster seat.

Travel vest: These vests can be worn by children between 20 and 168 pounds and offer an alternative to traditional forward-facing child safety seats. They are useful when a vehicle has lap-only seat belts in the rear seats, or for children whose weight has exceeded that allowed by the child safety seats. These vests may require the use of a top tether.

Built-in child seat: Some vehicles have forward-facing child safety seats integrated into their rear seats. Many of these seats have a five-point harness system. Some built-in seats convert to belt-positioning booster seats for older children once the internal harness is completely outgrown. The height and weight limits vary by car model, so be sure to check your car owner’s manual for this information.

Car Seat Safety: Ages 4 to 8

When used correctly, a belt-positioning booster seat prevents injuries in a crash. A booster seat raises your child up so that the vehicle’s lap and shoulder belt is properly positioned across your child’s hips and chest. Children who don’t use booster seats are left vulnerable in their abdomen, neck, and other soft tissues. If the vehicle seat belt is at a child’s belly rather than below the hip bones and touching the thighs, your child could suffer damage to internal organs, the spine, and other critical body parts if a crash occurs. 

The following booster seat safety tips can help keep your child safe:

  • You should use a belt-positioning booster seat in the back seat of your vehicle. Be sure your child always uses the vehicle lap and shoulder belts along with the booster seat. 
  • When using a booster seat, make sure the lap belt lies low and snug across your child’s upper thighs, below the hip bones. The shoulder belt should cross the center of your child’s chest and shoulder, and not cut across the child’s neck or face.
  • Never put the shoulder belt behind your child’s back or under her arm.
  •  Many boosters come with belt guides to make the shoulder belt fit better. High-back booster seats come with guides, while backless booster seats come with plastic clips.)  If not, use the shoulder belt height adjusters that are built into your vehicle. While “add-on” belt adjusters are sometimes sold separately from the booster seat, there are no national standards for these products, and manufacturers do not guarantee they will work with your particular booster seat. 
  • If your vehicle doesn’t have shoulder belts in the back seat, a dealer can retrofit your vehicle with seat belt assemblies in the back seat. You should also consider using a travel vest, which accommodates children up to 168 pounds.
  • Your child should be tall enough to sit against the vehicle seat back with his knees bent without slouching and can comfortably stay in this position throughout the trip.

How to Choose a Self-Positioning Booster Seat

  • Let your child help you pick out the booster seat. Ask him to try out seats to find one that is comfortable. Teach him how to buckle himself up.
  • Make sure the booster seat meets national standards. The label should say, “This child restraint system conforms to all applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards.”
  • Show your child that the booster will let her see out of the window better and help make the seat belt comfortable. Tell her that boosters are for “big kids.” Don’t call a booster seat a child’s seat.
  • Explain to your child why he is using a booster seat and not just the car’s seat belt. Let him know that a booster would help keep him safe if a crash occurs.

Child safety seat registration card

There are many product registration cards you might ignore, but it is absolutely critical that you not ignore your child’s safety seat registration. If you don’t, you will not be notified if the child safety seat is recalled or has other safety problems. Consumer product recalls are often more extensive when child products are involved. By keeping your registration current, you will be notified of any recalls or other safety concerns. If you moved since you mailed the card, make sure you call your child safety seat manufacturer or visit the company’s website to update your address. You can also check for child seat recalls through the NHTSA website.


Is It Safe To Use A Car Seat After An Accident?

The NHTSA advises that car seats be replaced following a moderate or severe crash to assure a continued high level of crash protection for child passengers. Car seats do not automatically need to be replaced following a minor collision.

What Defines A “Minor Accident”? A minor crash is one in which all (five) of the following apply:

  1. The vehicle was able to be driven away from the crash site.
  2. The vehicle door closest to the car seat was not damaged.
  3. None of the passengers in the vehicle sustained injuries in the collision.
  4. If the car has airbags, the airbags did not deploy during the accident.
  5. There is no visible damage to the car seat.
  • NEVER use a car seat that was involved in a mild to severe crash.
  • ALWAYS follow the manufacturer’s instructions.


Call (888) 488-1391 for a Free Case Evaluation with a California Car Accident Lawyer

At Arash Law, we fight hard to protect injury victims’ legal rights. This is especially important when a car accident injures a child who cannot protect their own legal rights. Parents need the help of experienced California car accident lawyers who know how to defend children’s rights. We have over twenty years of experience, and our personal injury lawyers have collected over 200 million dollars for our clients. 

Our record-setting accident attorneys have helped accident victims in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Riverside, San Jose, San Diego, Sacramento, Sherman Oaks and throughout California. Call (888) 488-1391 or contact us online to schedule your free consultation with an experienced California auto accident injury lawyer.

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DISCLAIMER: Information provided on this blog is not formal legal advice. It is generic legal information. Under no circumstances should the information on this page be relied upon when deciding the proper course of a legal action. Always obtain a free and confidential case evaluation from a reputable attorney near you if you think you might have a personal injury lawsuit.

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