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Child Seat Safety

Author / Coordinator:  
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
March 2007

Automobile accidents kill more children each year than any major childhood illness. Tragically, 80 percent of the children who have died in automobile accidents would still be alive if they had been protected by child safety seats or safety belts.

It's easy to teach your children safety habits that will last a lifetime and may save their lives. Bring your new baby home from the hospital in an infant safety seat and, as your child grows, provide the proper safety seats until he or she can comfortably and safely use safety belts.

Keeping your child safe in the car is easy, if you know what to do and, almost as important, what not to do.

The Basics

According to the National Safety Belt Coalition, if all young children rode in child safety seats, 500 lives could be saved and 53,000 injuries prevented each year. And, when used correctly, child safety seats are 71 percent effective in preventing fatalities, 67 percent effective in reducing serious injuries and 50 percent effective in preventing minor injuries.

Here are the three most important things for you to remember:

  • The safest place in a vehicle for any child, at any time, is the back seat.
  • Never let your child ride unrestrained in the car. Most accidents occur close to home, not on the super highways. A sudden swerve or stop to avoid an accident can cause serious injury to an unrestrained child. A sudden stop at only 20 mph will throw an unrestrained child toward the dashboard with a force of 400 pounds.
  • Never place a rear-facing infant safety seat in the front seat of a car with an airbag. The force of a deploying airbag striking the back of a child seat can seriously injure or kill an infant.
  • It is against the law in all 50 states for children to ride unrestrained in vehicles. The fines range from $25 to $500.
    Anytime a child rides in your car or truck, remember:
  • Never let a child ride on an adult's lap. A sudden stop at 30 mph turns an adult who's not wearing a safety belt into a two-ton crushing machine that can kill or seriously injure the child they think they are protecting.  In the same situation, an adult wearing a safety belt will have the child ripped from their arms with the force of 300 pounds. In crash tests conducted at 15 mph and 30 mph with seat-belted adults holding dolls, not one adult was able to hold onto the doll, even when they knew exactly when the impact would occur.
  • Never let a child ride in the bed of a pickup truck or in the cargo area of a station wagon or van. There is no protection in the event of a crash, and each year hundreds of children are thrown or fall from these vehicles under standard driving conditions. Thirty percent of the children injured by falling from these vehicles sustain severe head trauma, often crippling them physically or mentally. A camper shell offers little protection and can actually add to the injury sustained in an accident.  Safety habits begun in infancy and continued through childhood and adolescence could save your teenager. Many drivers involved in fatal crashes are teenagers, and studies show that they use safety belts less often than any age group. If your teen wears a safety belt whenever he or she is in the car, the chances of fatal injury are reduced by 50 percent.

Take the Time to Do it Right

Most parents know that safety seats save lives, but don't take the time to be sure they have installed the seats correctly. A national survey revealed that as many as 75 percent of the child safety seats currently in use on the road are incorrectly installed.

A child safety seat that is not properly installed offers little or no lifesaving protection. In fact, installed incorrectly, the seat may be more of a hazard than a safety feature.

When you purchase a child safety seat, take the time to carefully read the child seat instructions and the installation instructions in the owner's manual for your vehicle.

Some common installation errors are:

  • Placement of the seat. Infant seats must face the rear of the car. The safest placement of any child safety seat is the center rear of the vehicle. In small cars with no rear center position, any position in the rear seat is safer than one on the front seat.
  • Incorrect use of the child seat harness system or incorrect routing of the vehicle seat belt in securing the car seat.
  • Use of second-hand seats that are missing parts of the harness, shield or tether strap.
  • Continued use of child safety seats that manufacturers have recalled for safety defects.
  • Failure to install locking clips on seat belts. Safety belt latches that slide freely along the belt must have a locking clip installed in order to use them with child safety seats. Every child safety seat originally comes with these locking clips taped to the seat and carries instructions for their installation.
  • Failure to follow special instructions, such as adding a special child seat buckle or installing a separate lap belt as suggested in the vehicle owner's manual.
    Once the seat is installed, make sure it is properly secured to your vehicle and that it fits your child properly. It should fit as snugly as possible, but still be comfortable.
  • In an infant seat that is used in a reclining position, if your baby's head flops forward, the seat is too upright (it should sit at a 45-degree angle). Place a tightly rolled towel under the front edge of the seat to tilt it back slightly.
  • Make sure the seat's harness straps fit your child's body snugly.
  • The harness straps are adjustable: for a newborn baby, use the lowest slots (below shoulder level).

Which Seat is Best for My Child?

Choosing the right child safety seat is crucial. Buy a seat that is comfortable for your child and easy for you to use.
There are three types, each aimed at specific ages and weights to insure the greatest safety and comfort.

  • Infant seats are for babies up to 20 pounds, from birth to nine to 12 months of age. Place it in the center of the back seat facing the back of the car.
  • Convertible seats can be used from birth until the child reaches 40 pounds or four years of age. They are installed facing the rear of the car for infants up to 20 pounds; when the child reaches approximately 20 pounds, the seat can be adjusted to face forward.
  • Booster seats are for children who have outgrown convertible seats. They should accommodate children up to 60 or 70 pounds; pay special attention to manufacturers' limits on a child's height and weight.

Whichever type you choose, the most important thing you can do is install and use it correctly, according to the manufacturer's instructions.
For more detailed information, contact the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and ask for Child Passenger Safety Tips or contact the National Safety Belt Coalition. Contact information is at the end of this page.

Smart Shopping Tips

When you are shopping for a child safety seat, keep in mind that the seat must fit both your child and your vehicle. Your child must be properly secured on every trip, so proper fit is essential.

If you're buying a new seat, ask the salesperson to let you try the floor models in your car. Put your child in the seat. Is he or she comfortable? Can your child move his or her arms freely and see out the window? Is it easy to get the child in and out of the seat?

If you purchase or are given a second-hand seat, make sure you get the owner's manual, and make sure that all the parts are included. If the seat is noticeably worn and torn, your best bet is to find another one. Ask if the seat has ever been in a crash; if it has, don't use it.

Here are some tips to help you make the right purchase.

  • Look for a label stating that the seat meets federal safety standards. Don't buy a seat that doesn't have one. The label should read: “This child restraint system conforms to all applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards” and should be dated after January 1, 1981. The label means that the seat has met standards for crashworthiness.
  • Use loaner programs. Many communities have safety seat loaner programs. To locate one, contact your local hospital or public health department, or ask your pediatrician for information.
  • Find out about recalls. Occasionally, manufacturers are required to recall their child safety seats to repair dangerous defects. After you buy a new child safety seat, take the time to fill out and return the manufacturer's registration card. If you don't, you won't be notified of any safety defects. Check to see if any recalls or safety notices have been issued on the seat you're considering by calling the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, toll free, at (800) 424-9393.
    Shopping for a New Car? Put Child Safety on Your List   When you are shopping for a new car, take your child and his or her safety seat with you to the showroom.
  • Ask if the safety seat can be installed properly in the models you are considering. Make sure the safety belts can be routed properly through your child's safety seat.
  • Try putting the child seat in the vehicles you are considering. Is it easy to put in and remove? Is it easy to remove the child from the seat? Is there enough head room for your child? Are the seats wide enough to safely accommodate the seat?
  • If your child's safety seat does not fit the new car, you will need to purchase a seat that does. Do not try to “rig” a car seat that does not fit properly. Make sure that at least 80 percent of the base of the child seat sits firmly on the car seat.

Practical Tips

  • Make the car seat a special place for your child. Select soft toys or books that are used only in the car seat. Attach them to the car seat frame with short strings; when your baby throws these toys, they are easy to retrieve and won't become a driving hazard.
  • Always drape a light-colored blanket over the car seat when you are parked in the sun. Otherwise the metal fixtures and vinyl seats can become uncomfortably hot.
  • Don't leave sharp or heavy objects loose in the car when you are riding in it. Put groceries in the trunk. In a crash or sudden stop, loose objects can fly around the interior of the car.
  • On long trips stop frequently — every two hours or so — to give your child some exercise and freedom from restraint. Never allow your child to get out of the car seat while you're on the road.
  • Never attempt to attend to your child's special needs while your are driving. If your child is crying or needs to be fed, stop and park the car first.
  • Set a good example for your child by wearing your own seat belt every time you drive or ride in the car. In national surveys, children overwhelmingly name their parents as the role models determining whether or not they wear safety belts.
  • Make sure everyone riding in your car uses safety belts. Don't make exceptions for siblings, relatives or friends.
  • Be sure the doors are locked when you're in the car, and don't allow your children to play with door handles or locks.
  • Don't give your children food in the car. You are in no position to help them if they choke. Lollipops and ice cream on a stick can be jammed into their throats by a bump or a swerve.
  • In cold weather, drape a blanket over your child after you attach the safety harness. The blanket can then be easily removed if your child becomes too warm.
  • Insist your day-care provider use your child safety seat. Demonstrate how the seat is installed and the proper harnessing of your child.
  • If you are unfortunate enough to have an accident, get a new child safety seat while you are having the car repaired. Child safety seats that have survived a crash are not guaranteed to perform adequately in another accident.
  • By taking the time to choose the right seat and install and use it properly will give you peace of mind knowing you're protecting your youngster. At the same time, you'll instill a safety habit that can protect your child for a lifetime.

Other Articles:

Moving Children from the Front Seat to the Back Seat: The Influence of Child Safety Campaigns: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

The Use of Child Restraints in 2002: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Proper Child Safety Seat Use Chart: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Child Seat Ratings: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration