#1 Not using a safety seat consistently
"We were only going to the grocery store ..." "He hates to ride in his car seat, so just this once I didn't make him ..." "She was having a meltdown, so I took her out of her seat for a minute to calm her down." Safety experts hear these words all too often from distraught parents after tragedy has struck. Remember, a one-time lapse can result in a lifetime of regret. In any case, using a safety seat consistently and correctly is the law. All 50 states require that children up to 3 years of age (or 40 inches tall in Kentucky) ride in car seats in private vehicles, and many have laws requiring car seats
or booster seats
until a child is considerably older. There's good reason for that. Every year, tens of thousands of children are injured in car crashes, and about a thousand are killed. In fact, auto accidents are by far the leading cause of death for American children. Safety seats dramatically reduce the risk of death or serious injury in a collision. Stephanie Tombrello, executive director of the nonprofit passenger-safety organization SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A.
, urges all parents to get a safety seat that's convenient to use, and to make buckling your child into it such a habit that you don't even have to think about it.
#2 Using an old or secondhand seat
That safety seat you scored at a garage sale for a fraction of its original price may seem like a bargain, but it could cost your child his life. The same goes for that older-model seat your sister gave you after her child outgrew it. Not only are used seats unlikely to come with the manufacturer's instructions (vital for correct installation), but they could be missing important parts, have been involved in an accident (even unseen damage can affect the seat's functioning), fall short of current safety standards, or have been recalled due to faulty design. Moreover, plastic gets brittle as it gets older, so a seat that's too old could break in a crash. If you must use a secondhand seat, make sure it has the original instructions (or contact the manufacturer for a replacement copy), has all its parts (check the manual), has never been involved in a serious accident, and hasn't been recalled. (Check your seat's recall status here.
) In addition, to avoid the dangers of aging plastic, SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A. recommends sticking with car seats that are ideally less than five years old and definitely less than ten years old. You can usually find an expiration date stamped somewhere on the seat.
#3 Turning your child to face forward too soon
Children have large heads and comparatively weak necks, so in a head-on collision a child's head can jerk forward suddenly and violently, resulting in spinal injuries. For this reason, keep your child rear-facing as long as possible. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says to keep your child in a rear-facing car seat until the age of 2
, or until he reaches the seat's maximum rear-facing height and weight limits. Moving your child out of his car seat or booster too soon. Though safety-seat laws
vary from state to state, all require that children under age 3 ride in a safety seat. Experts are unequivocal in their recommendations for safe riding beyond that age:
- Your child should ride in a safety seat with a five-point harness until he weighs at least 40 pounds, or until his shoulders no longer fit under the harness straps. Get more details from our expert about when kids can safely switch from a car seat to a booster.
- Your child should ride in a booster seat from the time he weighs 40 pounds and is at least 4 years old until he's 4 feet 9 inches tall and at least 8 years old. Get more details from our expert about when kids can safely switch from a booster seat to car seat belts alone.
You can substitute a travel vest for a safety or booster seat if your car has only lap belts in the back seat or your child weighs more than a safety or booster seat allows.
#4 Not installing a safety seat correctly
A safety seat won't do its job if it's installed wrong.The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that three out of four safety seats are used incorrectly. Among the most common mistakes: Not buckling the car seat in tightly enough, and not using the right type of seat belt to secure your child in his booster seat. Check to be sure that car seats don't tip forward or slide from side to side more than an inch, and that boosters are secured with a lap-and-shoulder belt. Better yet, use an anchoring system if you can. By law, all car seats and vehicles manufactured since September 2002 must be compatible with the LATCH system, or "lower anchors and tethers for children." This system combines the previously existing top tethers with lower anchors, built into the rear of the car. Some cars built between 1999 and 2002 also have the system. Toddler/booster combo seats are required to have both the upper and lower attachments; booster seats are not required to work with LATCH. Owners of earlier model cars may want to consider having their car retrofitted with the LATCH system. Check with your local auto dealership for information on cost and feasibility.
#5 Not buckling a car seat into the car
Believe it or not, many parents who are cited for car seat violations have their child buckled into a car seat but have not buckled the car seat to the car. This may be the result of confusion about how the seats work or just of switching a seat from one car to another on a hectic morning. To avoid this mistake, when you're putting your child in his seat, double-check to be sure that the seat is buckled tightly to the car. Forward-facing safety seats come with a strap so you can tether the seat to an anchor point in the car. Tethering the seat gives extra protection, helping to prevent head and neck injuries to children if there is a collision. If you have an older car that doesn't have an anchor, you might want to find out if you can have one installed.