When parents rate a child’s car seat, they’re usually thinking about how easy it is to carry, buckle or clean — and whether it has a well-placed cupholder. But experts look at whether it’s being used correctly to keep a child safe, and surprisingly often, it’s not.
A 2016 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that up to 59 percent of car seats were improperly used. And Miriam Manary, senior engineering research associate at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, said misuse estimates were even higher in other studies. Some of the errors are minor, she said, “but somewhere around 35 percent of it is gross misuse where they’re not going to get any protection from that system — things like not securing the child restraint into the vehicle or not harnessing the child in the child restraint system.”
Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death in children, and about 40 percent of the children killed in crashes were unrestrained, Ms. Manary said. But when car seats are used effectively, they can reduce the risk of fatal injury by 54 to 71 percent.
Here’s expert advice on how to use your child’s car seat more safely. For personalized help with your car seat, the organization Safe Kids Worldwide offers free car seat checks.
Keep kids rear-facing as long as possible
Most states require that children sit in rear-facing car seats only until age 1, but that recommendation is changing across the country. Currently, nine states have passed legislation requiring that children sit rear-facing until at least age 2 (including a new law in New York, which goes into effect in 2019). Whether or not your state has made the change, the best practice is to keep your child rear-facing as long as possible, up to the top height and weight limits of the car seat, according to both the N.H.T.S.A. and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“For a child in a rear-facing seat during a frontal impact crash, the child’s entire head, neck and back, their spinal column and their central nervous system, are supported by the shell of the car seat,” said Greg Durocher, founder of Safe Ride 4 Kids and a child passenger safety technician and instructor.
A rear-facing car seat cocoons the child, absorbs the impact of the crash and keeps the spinal cord aligned. Conversely, when a child is facing forward during a frontal crash, the head, neck and spine are propelled forward even as the torso is secured. Because young children have developing vertebrae, weak neck muscles and a heavy head, this forward jolt can result in serious spinal cord damage and head injury.
“The laws of physics don’t change no matter what state or country you’re in,” Mr. Durocher said. “Give your child’s bones and vertebrae more time to get strong enough to withstand that crash force.”
Check your car seat’s expiration date
Yes, car seats expire, like food or batteries. The plastic and other materials used to construct car seats are not made to last forever. With exposure over the years to UV rays, extreme heat and cold and typical wear and tear, the seat’s parts can break down and become less capable of withstanding an impact.
Manufacturers test seats in an environmental chamber, where they can “set it through a cycle of temperature changes that will simulate the anticipated life cycle or expected desired life of the product,” said Sarah Tilton, a child passenger safety technician and instructor and safety advocate for Britax, which makes car seats.
As a general rule, convertible car seats tend to have a 10-year life span whereas infant seats last about six years. Check the registration card you received upon purchase or the seat itself to find your seat’s expiration date. And when you get a new car seat, fill out the registration card and save a picture of it on your phone so it is easy to check in case of a recall.
As technology in both cars and car seats advances, older seats may not meet current standards, be well suited for current cars or protect as thoroughly as current car seat models.
“People don’t hesitate or bat an eye to spend hundreds of dollars on a telephone that they switch out every two years, and yet they want to hang on to an old car seat?” said Lorrie Walker, child passenger safety training manager and technical adviser for the Buckle Up program at Safe Kids Worldwide.
If you’ve been in a serious car crash, dispose of your car seat
Any car seat that has been involved in a moderate or serious accident should be discarded because damage to the product could weaken its future performance. The N.H.T.S.A. says you can keep using a car seat if it was in a minor crash — one in which you were able to drive the car away from the crash site; the airbags did not deploy; the door nearest the car seat was not damaged; there were no injuries to passengers and there was no visible damage to the car seat.
When your car seat’s time is up, dispose of it by removing the fabric cover and cutting the straps to render it useless to anyone else.
Use the top tether
All forward-facing car seats (with the exception of booster seats) have a tether strap that connects the top of the car seat to an additional anchor point in the vehicle. “Today every car has at least three tether anchors in it. Some have five,” Ms. Walker said. The tether reduces how far forward a child can move during a crash. But many parents forget to use the top tether, she said.
In the event of a sudden stop, every inch counts. The top tether can decrease the amount a child pitches forward between four and six inches, which could keep a child’s head from coming into contact with the back of the front seat during a crash, Ms. Tilton said.
Don’t ditch the booster too soon
One of the hardest battles for parents to win is to get an older child to sit willingly in a booster seat, especially if peers have started riding without one. But as with the rear-facing car seat recommendation, the best practice for boosters isn’t necessarily reflected by your state’s law. While many states require children to ride in a booster only until age 8, experts say height is a better guideline than age: kids under 4 foot 9 belong in a booster.
Pricier doesn’t equal safer
All car seats, regardless of design details or price, are required to meet the same federal safety standard, which mandates a designated performance level during a frontal impact — the most common type of crash. Manufacturers must crash test and self-certify all models before shipping them for retail. N.H.T.S.A. then does spot testing to ensure that the car seats on store shelves comply with the federal standard. So a more expensive car seat does not necessarily indicate a safer ride.
Some car seats, however, do have added features that set them apart. For instance, many car seats have enhanced side-impact safeguards even though there is currently no side-impact standard in the United States. (If you’re shopping for a car seat, Wirecutter, a product review company owned by The New York Times, has a new guide to convertible car seats, including side-impact testing.)
The most important safety feature to keep in mind, though, is proper use. This means that the safest car seat is one that fits your child based on the height and weight requirements of the product and is easy for you to use so that you install it properly and buckle your child securely — every time.