9 Car Seat Safety Mistakes You May Be Making
You know how we all have our “thing” as a parent? For me, car seat safety is my hill to die on. After three kids, I’ve relaxed about quite a few things, but car seat safety is not one of them.
Motor vehicle accidents are one of the leading causes of death among children in the US and Canada. Every year, many injuries and deaths are directly caused by the misuse or failure to use child safety restraints. Proper car seat use can reduce the risk of death by 71%. Despite the fact that we know proper car seat use is critical to ensure our children’s safety, almost half of all car seats are used incorrectly – and many studies estimate that misuse is much higher.
These statistics are sobering. We all want to keep our children safe, but it’s very easy to make simple mistakes which could jeopardize our children’s safety in a car accident. In this post I’m sharing nine of those mistakes. If you’re making one of these mistakes, or you have in the past, please do not read anything in this post as judgment. The reason these mistakes are listed here is because they are common. The good news is that they’re relatively easy to fix.
Before I dive in to some common car seat safety mistakes, I want to add a disclaimer. I’m not a CPST (child passenger safety technician). I’m just a Mom of three young kids who has done a lot of reading on this topic. Always, always read your car seat instructions, your vehicle owner’s manual, and if possible, have your installation inspected by a CPST.
Here are nine very common car seat safety mistakes.
1. Not reading the manual
Raise your hand if you spent hours and hours researching the best car seat for your child, and then sent your spouse out to install it in your vehicle once it arrived? I know that I’m certainly guilty of this. I love my husband, but reading the instructions is not his forte. Nor should the onus be entirely on him.
Before installing your car seat, read the car seat manual, and the relevant portions of your vehicle owner’s manual. Most car seats have special instructions that you will only know if you read the manual. For example, should the handle on the bucket seat be up or down? What is the proper recline angle for your child’s age? What belt path should you use? When should the tether be used? What about the anti-rebound bar? Where should the crotch strap be positioned? How should the seat be washed? Take the time to read the manual thoroughly before installing the car seat in your vehicle.
2. Installing the car seat improperly
This is where reading the manual is key – your car seat will likely have special instructions that you need to follow when installing the seat in your car. Your manual will tell you which belt path you should be using, how to lock the seatbelt (if applicable), whether you need the tether or an anti-rebound bar, and what angle the seat should be installed at – among other things.
Most car seats can be installed two ways – using the seatbelt, or using the LATCH (lower anchors and tethers for children) system (UAS in Canada). Car seats should be installed using one OR the other – not both (unless your car seat manual says otherwise). Using both methods does not make the seat extra secure. In fact, the opposite may be true, as using both methods at the same time may distribute the crash forces improperly.
Be aware that there are weight limits on the LATCH system. In most cases, this weight limit is 65 pounds. That means that once the combined weight of your child PLUS the car seat exceeds 65 pounds, you will need to switch to a seatbelt installation.
Whether you install your car seat using the LATCH system or a seatbelt, you need to ensure that the installation of the car seat is tight enough. Car seats should not move more than 1 inch at the belt path. As anyone who has ever installed a car seat knows, this can be easier said than done. Usually you will have to push down on the seat with your knee or your stomach (for rear-facing seats), while tightening the LATCH or seatbelt, in order to get it tight enough.
If at all possible, have your installation checked by a CPST.
3. Not adjusting the harness height
Some harness straps need to be manually routed through slots in the back of the seat, while others have a no re-thread harness. Whichever one is the case for your car seat, you need to make sure the harness straps are at the right height.
When your child is rear-facing, the shoulder straps should be in slots that are at or below the child’s shoulders.
When your child is forward-facing, the shoulder straps should be in slots that are at or above the child’s shoulders.
4. Positioning the chest clip incorrectly
Positioning the chest clip incorrectly is a very common mistake. I can still remember the very first time I placed my oldest in his infant seat, before having it checked by the hospital staff when we left the hospital. I had never used a car seat before and placed the chest clip far too low – thankfully they noticed and corrected me. The chest clip should be positioned in line with the child’s armpits.
5. Not tightening the harness enough
To test whether you have the harness tight enough, try to pinch the strap at your child’s collar bone. If you’re able to pinch any slack between your fingers, the harness is too loose.
It’s important that you remove all slack from the harness before you tighten the harness and do the pinch test. Pull the straps tight at the crotch buckle to remove any slack at your child’s hips before you tighten the harness. On one of our Britax car seats I also have to make sure to adjust the straps tightly through the HUGS chest pads.
6. Wearing winter coats
Bulky winter clothing can make it impossible to tighten a car seat properly. In an accident, the clothing will compress, putting too much space between your child and their car seat straps.
Bulky winter clothing should never be worn in a car seat. Instead, use a blanket, dress your child in a fleece sweater or jacket, or put their coat on backwards after you’ve buckled them in their car seat. For more on why bulky winter coats shouldn’t be used in car seats, visit Car Seats for the Littles.
7. Using after-market products
There are a TON of accessories that you can buy for your car seat, but the general rule is that if it didn’t come in the box with your car seat, it isn’t safe to use. After-market products haven’t been safety tested with your car seat, and may affect how it performs in a crash. Visit Car Seats for the Littles for more information on after-market products.
8. Using an expired or used car seat, or a car seat that has been in an accident
Car seats expire, and should not be used past their expiration date. I’ve heard many complaints that this is a money grab by the car seat companies, but that’s not a chance I’m willing to take. Car seats are made of plastic, which breaks down over time. Think of the extreme temperatures (hot and cold) that your car seat is exposed to on a regular basis. Not only that, car seat technology is always changing and improving. A car seat bought today is going to have additional safety features and be easier to use than a comparable model purchased 7 years ago.
To find the expiration date on your car seat, you may have to check your car seat AND your manual. Some expiration dates are printed right on the car seat shell, while you’ll have to read the car seat manual for others. There is not a standard length of time before your car seat expires, so make sure you find the correct information for your seat.
With a few exceptions, car seats that have been in an accident need to be replaced. The car seat may have sustained damage, even if it’s invisible to the naked eye, and most manuals will state that the seat should be replaced in the event of a crash. Insurance will usually cover this cost, but be forewarned that it may be something that you need to bring to the attention of the insurance company. We had to replace an entire set last year, but if I hadn’t brought it up I don’t think they would have asked.
I’ve mentioned before that car seats are something that you should not buy used. There is no way to know for sure if a car seat was involved in a car accident, or has been cared for incorrectly, both of which can compromise the safety of the seat. Obviously, there are some exceptions, but in general, I would not recommend buying a used car seat unless you know the full history of that seat.
Check out The Car Seat Lady for more on used car seats.
9. Rushing the next stage
As parents we’re often anxious for our child to reach the next milestone. Car seat milestones are one milestone that should not be rushed.
Most jurisdictions have laws that set out the minimum height, weight, and/or age requirement for moving your child to the next stage. For example, in my province, a child must be rear-facing until they are at least 12 months old AND over 20 pounds. They must be in a forward-facing harnessed seat until they are at least 40 pounds. Finally, they must be in a booster seat until they are at least 9 years old OR 4’9″ tall.
The problem with these laws is that in many cases these are bare minimums, and do not reflect current recommended best practice. For example, the AAP recommends that children are in a rear-facing seat until they reach the maximum height or weight allowed for their seat. Similarly, they recommend that children remain harnessed until they’ve reached the maximum height or weight allowed for their forward-facing car seat.
Rear-facing is the safest way for all of us to travel, but that is particularly true for infants and toddlers. For more on why rear-facing is so important, check out this article from The Car Seat Lady.
Peer pressure isn’t a big factor in the decision to turn your child from rear-facing to forward-facing (although I found that I got more comments about my boys “still” being rear-facing the older they got). Older children, however, are often anxious to move to a booster seat, or ditch the booster altogether, especially if they see their friends doing the same. I read a very powerful line on this in a Today’s Parent article:
No child has ever actually died of embarrassment, but tragically, the same can’t be said for kids and car accidents.
Don’t rush the next car seat stage – your child will get there before you know it.
Related: Goodbye to the Baby Years
I hope that you found the information in this article helpful. Remember to always read your car seat instructions, your vehicle owner’s manual, and if possible, have your installation inspected by a CPST. If you’re looking for more information about car seats and car seat safety, check out some of my favourite resources: