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Ultimate Guide to Car Seat Safety

Car seat safety is one of the biggest concerns for parents of young children. As a responsible and concerned parent, you want to know that your little one is safe and secure when you’re driving. This guide can provide all the information you need to help protect your child while traveling in your vehicle.

Photo Credit: Graco®  

Car Seat Statistics and Recall Information

Each year in the United States, motor vehicle accidents injure thousands of children, and they’re the leading cause of death for people under 18. In 2018 alone, motor vehicle accidents claimed the lives of 636 children under the age of 13, with more than 97,000 injuries. Of the children under 13 killed in vehicle accidents, about 30% were unrestrained.

The good news is that, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute, child deaths in passenger vehicles have decreased by 61 percent since 1975, no doubt because of the growing use of child restraints. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), car seats that restrain children, as opposed to seat belts alone, protect children better, increasing their odds of leaving the scene of a crash without serious injuries by 71-82%.

Having the proper car seat and correctly installing it can reduce the risk of serious injury and prevent child deaths. The most critical factor in reducing the likelihood of injuries is making sure you buckle your child into a car or booster seat appropriate for the child’s age and size.

Every car seat sold in the United States is required to meet federal safety standards. To ensure that a car seat complies with these rigorous standards, look for the following:

• Make sure the car seat label states: “This restraint system conforms to all applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards. This restraint is certified for use in all motor vehicles and aircraft.” This wording means that the company has tested the car seat to comply with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213, created explicitly for car seats.

• Look for instructions regarding the car seat’s use on the seat and in the manual.

• Note the manufacturer name and date of manufacture. This information is essential to check whether any current or past recalls apply to the specific make and brand of the car seat. SafetyBeltSafe USA issues yearly lists of recalls and replacement parts for child restraints. Go to their website to see the latest recalls.

Which Type of Car Seat Should You Be Using?

The type of car or booster seat you should have for your child depends on your child’s age, size, and developmental needs. Child seats include rear-facing seats, rear-facing convertible seats, forward-facing convertible seats, forward-facing seats with harnesses, booster seats, and seat belts.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued recommendations for car seats according to age, weight, and height requirements. Additionally, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following restraint devices according to age:

Infants and Toddlers

Infants and toddlers should ride in rear-facing or rear-facing convertible seats until they reach the seat manufacturer's highest weight and height requirements.

Toddlers and Preschoolers

Once children have outgrown the manufacturer's height and weight requirements for a rear-facing seat, they can ride in forward-facing seats with harnesses or forward-facing convertible seats. Children can remain in these forward-facing seats until they outgrow the manufacturer's height and weight requirements. For example, forward-facing seats with harnesses typically can hold children up to 65 pounds.

School-Aged Children

School-aged children with heights and weights that exceed the manufacturer's requirements for forward-facing seats with harnesses should ride in booster seats. School-aged children may stop using a booster seat and use seat belts when the seat belt fits properly, usually when children are between ages 8 and 13 and at least 4 feet and 9 inches tall.

Older Children

Once seat belts fit older children properly, older children should wear both lap and shoulder seat belts. Moreover, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children under age 13 ride in the back seat. Restraining children in rear seats rather than front seats reduces the risk of death by about 75% for children up to age three and almost 50% for children ages 4 to 8. The middle of the back seat is generally the safest location for a child but installing a car seat tightly in the middle is sometimes tricky. Additionally, some vehicles don't have lower anchors for the middle seat. Always place the car seat in the position where you can install it the tightest.

Car Seat Installation

Ensuring that you install your child’s seat properly is very important. An improperly installed seat can significantly raise the risk of injury in an accident. According to the CDC, child restraints are often not used properly. Data shows that parents use almost 60% of car seats and 20% of booster seats in a manner that reduces their effectiveness in preventing injuries.

Car seats are installed with either the vehicle’s seat belt or the car seat’s restraint system known as LATCH (lower anchors and tethers for children). If you’re not sure how to install your child’s car seat, visit a Certified Passenger Safety (CPS) Technician, who can help you properly install your seat.

Most hospitals have CPS technicians on-site when parents leave the hospital with their newborns. CPS technicians inspect the car seats in new parents’ cars and fix any installing errors before the parents leave with their new babies. Safekids.org also offers valuable links to help you find a CPS technician in your area.

LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children)

LATCH refers to a vehicle’s attachment system for installing car safety seats. Almost all passenger vehicles and car seats manufactured on or after September 2, 2002, include the LATCH system. With LATCH, lower anchors are used to install the seat rather than using the vehicle’s seat belts.

Some parents find that installing with LATCH is easier than using a seat belt. If you complete the installation properly, installing with seat belts and LATCH are equally safe. However, parents should use only one method at a time unless the car seat manufacturer allows the use of both systems simultaneously.

To install a car seat using a seat belt, make sure that the seat belt is locked. With newer vehicles, you can pull the belt all the way out and then let it retract to keep it tight around the car seat.

Lower Anchor

Lower and tether anchors are both included in vehicles with the LATCH system. Lower anchors are in the back seat where the seat cushions meet. Lower anchors allow a maximum of 65 pounds, including both the car seat’s weight and the child’s weight. The car seat manufacturer will specify the maximum weight a child must be to use lower anchors.

Tether Anchor

Tether anchors are behind the seat. In sedans, they’re on the panel behind the seat, and in most minivans, hatchbacks, and pickup trucks, they’re on the back of the seat ceiling or floor. Vehicle owner’s manuals will note the maximum weight for a child to use the top tether.

Rear-Facing Seats

Infants and toddlers should be placed in rear-facing or rear-facing convertible seats until they reach the seat manufacturer’s highest weight and height requirements.

Rear-facing Only Seats

Infants who weigh from 22 to 35 pounds use rear-facing only seats. These seats have carrying handles. They are attached to a base that they click in and out of. You can then remove the seat from the car to carry the infant outside the vehicle.

Rear-Facing Convertible Seats

Rear-facing convertible seats face toward the rear of the car and then later can convert to forward-facing seats. However, rear-facing convertible seats are heavier than rear-facing only seats, do not come with bases, and you can’t remove them from the vehicle for carrying the child outside of the car.

Rear-facing convertible seats have five-point harnesses that attach to the child’s shoulders, hips, and legs. Often, these seats have higher maximum weight and height limits, which may be more suited for larger babies and toddlers.

All-In-One Seats

You can use all-in-one seats as rear-facing, forward-facing, and booster seats. All-in-one seat manufacturers tout the benefits of only having to buy one car seat that will last from a child’s infancy to school age.

Because all-in-one seats usually have higher weight and height limits than other car seats, they may work better with larger babies and toddlers. However, all-in-one seats tend to be the largest car seats and may not fit in all vehicles when they’re rear-facing. Another potential downside of all-in-one seats is that they lack the convenience of a separate base or carrying handles.

Installing Rear-Facing Seats

Before installing the seat, read the owner manuals for the car seat and the vehicle for specific instructions and specifications for rear-facing seats. Once you’ve done this, complete the following steps to ensure you’ve correctly installed the seat:

 
Make sure you install the car seat tightly so that it cannot move more than one-inch front-to-back or side-to-side.
Attach the harness into slots at or below the child's shoulders.
Make sure the harness fits snugly, with the retainer clip at the center of your child's chest.
Make sure you install the seat at an angle that prevents your child's head from flopping forward.
Make sure the lower anchor straps go through the correct belt path if your rear-facing seat is a convertible or all-in-one car seat.
To install a rear-facing seat at a more upright position, pull the car seat bottom away from the vehicle seat back, push the car seat's foot area down while tightening, and make sure that the car seat is within the appropriate reclining range.

Finally, you must install rear-facing seats in the back seat only. Placing a rear-facing seat in the front seat of a vehicle with airbags can lead to injury or death in an accident.

Forward-Facing Seats

Once children have outgrown the manufacturer’s height and weight requirements for a rear-facing seat, they can ride in forward-facing seats with harnesses or forward-facing convertible seats. Forward-facing seats with harnesses typically can hold children up to 65 pounds, usually including toddlers and preschoolers up to four years old.

Convertible Seats

Convertible seats convert from rear-facing to forward-facing seats.

Combination Seats with Harness

Combination seats with harnesses typically hold children weighing 40 to 65 pounds. You can exclude the harness for children weighing 100 to 120 pounds. The weight requirements differ according to the car seat model.

Integrated Seats

Some manufacturers now design vehicles to include forward-facing car seats, particularly booster seats. The booster is part of the rear seat bench and pops up when needed to elevate the child’s position in the vehicle. Dodge and Volvo currently manufacture cars with integrated booster seats.

The obvious advantage of buying a car with an integrated booster seat is the convenience of having a built-in booster in your vehicle when you need it. However, integrated booster seats often don’t provide the side impact protection that comes with traditional booster seats. Also, weight and height limitations may limit your child’s use of the integrated seat, they don’t include rear-facing options, and the straps may not be snug enough for smaller children.

Travel Vests

Travel vests are an alternative to forward-facing and booster seats. Children weighing between 40 to 65 pounds can typically wear travel vests. Larger sizes can fit children who weigh up to 100 pounds, and straps are adjusted as the child grows.

Travel vests bring the seatbelt to the child’s level rather than raising the child in the seat. A Velcro panel and a metal buckle on the front of the vest secures it. Once the child is in the car, thread the car’s seat belt through the guides on the vest’s lap and shoulder areas.

Travel vests are good options for children with special needs when a vehicle only has lap seat belts and when children have outgrown car seats. Travel vests often include a top tether that limits head movement during a vehicle accident. Top tethers also prevent a child’s head from slumping forward.

Installing
Forward-Facing Seats

Like any car seat, always read the safety manuals for both the vehicle and the car seat before installing. Keep in mind the following important tips when installing forward-facing seats:

Harness straps should be positioned just above your child's shoulders.
Make sure you position the seat's recline angle so that it's upright in the vehicle.
Make sure the seat belt (if used) is threaded through the forward-facing belt path and securely locked and tightened.
If you're using lower anchors, make sure that the total weight (the child and the car seat) is 65 pounds or less.
Use the tether to prevent the child's head from slouching forward but make sure that the child's weight does not exceed the weight limit for using a tether anchor.

Booster Seats

School-aged children with heights and weights that exceed the manufacturer’s requirements for forward-facing seats with harnesses should ride in booster seats. Booster seats typically should be used for children under age eight and less than 4 feet 9 inches tall. Booster seats do not come with harnesses and are secured with shoulder and lap seat belts.

With High Back

Booster seats with high backs work best in vehicles with low seatbacks or no headrests. Consumer Reports stated that high-back booster seats can be safer than a backless booster seat because you can better position the seat belt across your child’s chest, thighs, and hips.

Backless Booster Seat

Backless booster seats are appropriate for use in vehicles with high seatbacks and headrests. Backless booster seats usually cost less than high-back boosters and can be more easily moved from vehicle to vehicle.

Combination Seat

Some booster seats that look like high back booster seats are combination seats. Combination seats come with a removable harness. These seats essentially combine front-facing with harnessed seating for smaller children. Once you take out the harness, you can turn the seat into a high back or even a no-back booster seat for bigger children.

Seat Belts

Children who've grown out of their booster seats are ready to use seat belts. Seat belts include both shoulder and lap straps, and children should always use both. Seat belts should rest across the upper thighs and fit snugly across the shoulder and chest areas. Seat belts should never rest against the stomach area or across the neck or face. Always make sure children are safely strapped in with the seat belt tight enough to secure them in the seat.

Car Beds

People usually use car beds for infants. Car beds are no safer than other child restraints, but people often use them for special needs children and medically fragile or premature babies. Ask your child’s pediatrician whether a car bed is appropriate for your child.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends car beds for:

• Infants younger than 37 weeks in gestation age
• Infants at risk of bradycardia or apnea oxygen desaturation
• Infants who cannot tolerate sitting in semi-reclined positions

Airbags

Generally, the best place for a car seat is in the vehicle’s center because this position is farthest away from the point of impact in a crash. In a car accident, front-seat airbags inflate from the dashboard at 200 miles per hour, a force that can injure or kill a child. If your vehicle has airbags, never place your child in a rear-facing seat in the front seat.

Airbags can also injure or kill larger children in the front seat. If your child sits in the front seat, slide the seat back as far as it can go. In the event of a crash, this decreases the impact of airbags against your child’s head.

Many vehicles now have side curtain airbags. Side curtain airbags come down from the roof of the car, just above the windows. Side curtain airbags are typically not a risk to car seats because the airbags don’t come down far enough to touch the seat.

 

Car Seat Safety Ratings

Before buying a car seat for your child, consider your child’s age, weight, height, and the type of vehicle you own.

Consumer Reports recently issued its list of the top ten car seats for 2021:

Graco SlimFit 3 In 1 Car Seat

Graco SlimFit 3 In 1 Car Seat

This combination car seat converts from a rear-facing seat to a forward-facing seat to a high-back booster seat. It features rotation cupholders, four recline positions, a Simply Safe Adjust Harness System, and the In Right LATCH
system, making installation easy, with a one-second attachment and audible click.

This car seat has passed the most rigorous crash tests, including front, side, rear, and rollover crashes. The harness system allows the headrest and harness to adjust together in a single motion.

Graco Transitions 3 in 1 Harness Booster Seat

Graco Transitions 3 in 1 Harness Booster Seat

This lightweight booster seat transitions from a harness booster (for children from 22 to 65 pounds) to a high back booster (for children from 30 to 100 pounds) to a backless booster seat (for children from 40 to 100 pounds). It has two removable cupholders, a machine-washable pad, body insert, and harness covers. This seat uses a Simply Safe Adjust Harness System, which adjusts with a one-hand, 8-position adjustable headrest without having to rethread.

Graco Exten2Fit 3-in-1 Car Seat

Graco Exten2Fit 3-in-1 Car Seat

You can use this You can use this convertible, steel-reinforced car seat as a rear-facing seat with harness (for children from four to 50 pounds), a forward-facing seat with harness (for children from 22 to 65 pounds), and a high back booster seat (for children from 40 to 100 pounds). It also has a 4-position extension panel offering up to five inches of extra rear-facing legroom so children can remain in rear-facing seats longer.

This seat uses a Simply Safe Adjust Harness System, which adjusts with a one-hand, 8-position adjustable headrest without having to rethread. It also includes the In Right LATCH system, making installation straightforward, with a one-second attachment.

This car seat has passed the most rigorous crash tests, including front, side, rear, and rollover crashes. In addition, it passed testing for extreme car interior temperatures and the New Car Assessment Program.

Cosco MightyFit 65 Convertible Car Seat

Cosco MightyFit 65 Convertible Car Seat

This convertible seat has a smaller design than many other car seats, allowing for three passengers to fit in the back seat of most vehicles. Designed to be used from five to 65 pounds, you can use this safety seat as rear-facing up to 40 pounds and then convert it to forward-facing at 65 pounds. It includes an easily adjustable 5-point harness and built-in side impact protection. The compact design makes it ideal for airplane travel.

Safety 1st Grow and Go All-in-One Convertible Car Seat

Safety 1st Grow and Go All-in-One Convertible Car Seat

You can use this convertible car seat in the rear-facing position for children weighing five to 40 pounds and in a forward-facing position for children weighing up to 65 pounds. It also has a belt-positioning booster for children weighing between 40 and 100 pounds.

Features include:

  • Two removable pillows for comfort and a snug fit
  • Side impact protection
  • Harness holders that keep the harness in an open position to make it easier to get the child in and out
  • A 3-position recline setting
  • A machine-washable seat pad with snaps for removal
Graco Grows4Me 4 in 1 Car Seat

Graco Grows4Me 4 in 1 Car Seat

This seat is designed for use up to age 10 and transitions from rear-facing to forward-facing to high back booster to a backless booster. Features include a one-hand adjustable 10-position headrest and six reclining positions.

Maxi-Cosi Magellan Xp 5-in-1 Convertible Car Seat

Maxi-Cosi Magellan Xp 5-in-1 Convertible Car Seat

Designed for use to age 10, with a weight range of five to 120 pounds, this convertible seat features:

  • A 7-position recline
  • 14 headrest heights
  • Three adjustable torso height positions
  • Self-wicking and machine-washable fabrics
  • A patented air Protect system built into the headrest to provide more cushion in an accident
Maxi-Cosi Mico 30 Infant Car Seat

Maxi-Cosi Mico 30 Infant Car Seat

This lightweight rear-facing car seat has an ergonomic handle for easy carrying, is compatible with Maxi-Cosi and other strollers, and has self-wicking machine-washable fabrics.

Graco 4Ever DLX 4 in 1 Car Seat

Graco 4Ever DLX 4 in 1 Car Seat

This convertible seat is designed for use up to age 10 and has Graco Protect Plus engineering for extra protection in front, side, rear, and rollover crashes.

Features include:

  • A 10-position harness and headrest
  • Six reclining positions
  • A one-second LATCH attachment with an audible click for secure installation
  • An integrated belt lock to make seat belt installation easy
Safety First Jive 2-in-1 Convertible Car Seat

Safety First Jive 2-in-1 Convertible Car Seat

This seat converts from rear-facing to forward-facing, and its small size allows three people to sit in the back seat of most cars.

Features include:

  • Side impact protection
  • A 5-point harness with five heights and three buckle locations
  • Removable insert pillows
  • Two removable cupholders
  • Machine-washable fabrics

Booster Seat Safety Ratings

Consumer Reports’ car seat ranking primarily focuses on convertible car seats. Some parents may not want to buy an all-in-one type of car seat. Safety.com, a company that issues safety ratings for all kinds of consumer products, has given the following five booster car seats the highest ratings for 2021:

Chico KidFit 2-in-1 Booster

Chico KidFit 2-in-1 Booster

Safety.com rates this booster as the “Best Parent-Approved Kid Booster Seat.” This booster seat comes with an adjustable backrest that’s removable to create a backless booster seat. It fits children at least four years old and up to 110 pounds and includes an adjustable backrest, ErgoBoost padding, and side-impact protection. Other features include two dishwasher-safe cup holders.

Evenflo Big Kid Booster Seat

Evenflo Big Kid Booster Seat

Safety.com rates this booster as the “Best Value Kid Booster Seat.” This booster seat has a removable backrest, six adjustable height positions, a high-foam liner, and a machine-washable booster seat pad. It’s recommended to fit children between 40 and 100 pounds. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rates it as a Best Bet Booster.

Chicco KidFit Zip Plus

Chicco KidFit Zip Plus

Safety.com rates this booster as the “Best Booster Seat for Easy Cleaning.” This booster seat fits children between 40 and 100 pounds and who are 38 to 57 inches tall. Its backrest is removable to convert into a backless booster. Other features include a quick-release latch, zip-off cushions, and machine-washable fabrics.

Evenflo Maestro Booster Car Seat

Evenflo Maestro Booster Car Seat

Safety.com rates this booster as the “Best Booster Seat for Smaller Children.” The seat fits children 22 to 110 pounds or from ages two to four and is adjustable for use with the five-point harness or seat belts (for children two and older). It has two cup holders for drinks or snacks.

Chicco Gofit Backless Booster

Chicco Gofit Backless Booster

This lightweight backless booster fits children 40 to 110 pounds and over age four. Made of high-quality double foam, it includes a machine-washable seat pad, a built-in handle for easy transport, two dishwasher-safe cup holders that fold out for snacks and drinks, and pop-out armrests.

To look for more highly ranked booster car seats, visit Safety.com.

Remember, no matter how high a car seat is rated, it must always be best for your child and fit them well. Before buying, visit retail stores where you can look at sample models and try them out to see how well they work for your child.

Safety Tips

With any type of car seat, you should follow some vital safety tips to increase your child’s safety in the event of an accident, including:

• Dress your child in thin clothes. Bulky clothes can leave the straps too loose and can increase the risk of injury in an accident.

• Make sure your child reclines at the correct angle. Babies need to remain in a semi-reclined position to keep their airways open. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for reclining positions. Adjust the reclining angle as your child grows.

• If your child tends to slump in the car seat, you should attach the seat to a tether anchor, assuming the child meets the size requirements for an anchor.

• No seat is the safest. The safest is whichever fits your child the best.

• A higher price doesn’t mean one car seat is safer than another.

• Never use a car seat that’s subject to a recall, has been involved in an accident, or has visible damage or missing parts. Make sure the seat has the manufacturer’s label so you can check for recalls, which you can check at the NHTSA website.

• Replace your car seat after a crash.

• If you don’t know a seat’s history, don’t use it.