Thursday, September 10, 2009

Car Seat Safety

About two years ago I learned that about 90% of car seats are not installed properly. I was not immune to this. Luckily, my friend Joy spoke up and offered to help me with my car get it installed properly. She showed me how to use the metal locking clip and to get the seat so secure that it barely moved at all. I had just been buckling Bella's infant seat into the car. She told me that the seat should not move more that 1 inch in any direction. All I needed was to be shown once how to do it properly and from that point on, she was much more safe. As I have come across cars in parking lots and seen friend's children in their car seats, I can see that it is a vast majority of us that do not know how to properly harness a child into a seat and how to properly install that seat into a car. I wish they would teach all parents this as we leave the hospital/birthing center..etc. We all want our children to be as safe as possible but sometimes those manuals are not very clear. Hopefully these frequently asked questions will help.

Car Seat FAQ's

What is the purpose of a car seat?
Car seats serve the same purpose that a seat belt does for an older child or adult. Car seats prevent ejection from the vehicle. If a person, whether that be an adult or a child, is ejected from the vehicle, they are 4 times more likely to die. Car seats also spread the forces of the impact over the strongest parts of a child's body. Car seats provide a "ride-down" effect and prevent the child from contacting hard surfaces inside the vehicle. If a car seat isn't used to the exact manufacturer's instructions, it cannot properly do its job!
How tight should my car seat be installed?
Your child's seat should move 1" or less when tugged at the belt path (the part of the seat where you run the seat belt through). The tighter the better. Why? For every inch you can move your child's seat, it will move 3 to 6 inches in a crash. A loose installation will cause your child's head and/or body to hit something in the vehicle, causing severe head, neck, and/or internal injuries. Put your knee into the seat and push down with your body weight as you pull on the seat belt to help insure a tight fit.
How tight should the harness straps be?
The harness straps should fit snugly. When properly adjusted, you should be able to fit no more than 1 finger between the harness straps and the child's collarbone. Men should use their pinky finger to test and women should use their index finger. Another way to check is if you can pinch webbing in an up - down direction near the shoulder, the straps are too loose. Why is it so important to have the harness straps snugly adjusted?
If the harness straps are too loose, one of three things is likely to happen.
The child may be ejected from the seat.
The child's body may contact something inside the vehicle causing severe injuries.
The child's body may slam into the harness straps causing internal injuries. If there is slack in the straps, the child will be thrown int
o the straps at the speed at which the crash occurred.
Click here to see correct harness use.
This shows TOO MUCH slack in the harness and is not safe

What is the purpose of the harness retainer clip (chest clip), and where should it be placed?
The chest clip is a pre-crash positioner and is designed to either break away or slide down in a crash. Its job is to keep the harness straps on the shoulders. It needs to be placed at armpit level.
This is a properly harnessed infant; note the chest clip position and snug fit

Which harness slot should I use?
Rear-facing seats - the harness slot used should be at or below the shoulders. Why? In a crash a rear-facing seat is designed to move backwards (or towards the impact/front of the vehicle). As the seat moves backwards, the child's body moves up towards the top of the seat. As the child moves up, the harness straps catch the child's shoulders and pull him back into the seat. If the straps are above the shoulders, the child could be ejected out the top.
Forward-facing seats - the harness slot should be at or above the shoulders. Why? In a crash the child's body is thrown towards the impact of the crash and the shoulders roll forward and downward. The straps catch the child and keep him in the seat. If the straps are below the shoulders, the downward movement of shoulders will be exaggerated. This could allow the child to contact something inside the vehicle or cause the child to be ejected.
**Important - unless your manual specifies otherwise, use the top slots only on convertible car seats that are facing forward. This is the only slot that is reinforced to withstand the crash forces. Using an unreinforced slot may cause the seat back to break, ejecting the child.
Note - this applies only to convertible seats that are used forward facing. Click here to see what happens when the wrong slots are used.
How can I tell if my car seat is outgrown?
A rear-facing seat is outgrown when 1. the child has reached the maximum weight of the car seat and/or 2. the top of the child's head is within 1" of the top of the shell on the car seat (push down on the padding and measure against the shell). Height guidelines are required by law and give the parent an estimate of how tall the child will be when he/she outgrows the seat. Keep in mind that a child who is all legs will be able to use a seat rear facing longer than a child who has a longer torso. If your child has outgrown the infant seat but is not yet ONE YEAR AND 20 POUNDS, then use a convertible car seat. The longer you can keep the child rear-facing, the safer he will be. Visit CPSafety to learn more about the benefits of extended rear facing.
A forward-facing seat is outgrown when one of the following conditions occurs: 1. the child reaches the maximum weight of the seat, 2. the harness straps are located below the child's shoulders, 3. the tips of the child's ears are above the top of the car seat.
**Important - Strictly adhere to all weight restrictions. A seat holding a child too heavy will fail in a crash.
I'm concerned because my rear-facing baby's feet touch the back seat. It looks so uncomfortable. Is this safe?
Yes, this is not a safety hazard. They are no documented reports of children breaking their legs in a crash. However, there are countless reports of children with spine and neck injuries from being turned forward facing too early. In a crash, a rear-facing child's legs will be thrown up and back away from the vehicle's seat. Please also note that children are not built like adults. They are very flexible and do not find riding this way uncomfortable.
My rear facing baby's head falls forward. Should I do anything to help?
It is very important to have your rear-facing seat reclined to an angle of about 45 degrees. This will keep her head from rolling forward. A head that is rolled forward can restrict or cut off the airway causing suffocation. Also, if the head is forward and off the back of the car seat, in a crash the baby's delicate head will be slammed down against the seat. If you are having trouble achieving the appropriate angle, use a rolled up towel or foam pool noodle under the front of your restraint (place the towel in the crease of the vehicle seat). An older baby (6 months or older) can have less of a recline (more towards 30 or 35 degrees). NEVER recline the seat more than 45 degrees. In a crash it will rotate down and the baby could slide out of the seat.
When can I turn my child forward-facing?
A baby needs to be both 20 LBS AND 1 YEAR old before being turned forward facing. They need to meet both of these conditions. The longer you can keep a child rear-facing, the safer they will be. A common mistake parents make is turning their child around too early because they can sit up, crawl, walk, etc. The guidelines for turning a child around have nothing to do with muscular strength. It is based on skeletal strength. A 9 mo. old baby who can sit, crawl, walk has the same skeletal strength as a 9 mo. who can do none of these things.

This is a 10 month old Forward Facing = NOT safe
Why is rear-facing so much safer?
Rear-facing is the safest way to travel in a vehicle. In a crash, the child moves as one unit with the car seat. The head, neck, and spine are held in the car seat and move with the force of the crash, not against it. In a forward facing seat, the torso is kept in the seat, but the head isn't and is violently thrown forward. A baby's head is very heavy and the neck is fragile. The neck cannot withstand the violent force of being thrown forward. The baby's unoccified bones can separate during the crash and the spinal cord can rip. It's the same thing as ripping an electrical plug out of the wall by the cord and breaking the wires. Please visit CPSafety for more in-depth information on rear-facing and why it is safest. Scroll down to the end of the site to see crash test videos showing the difference between forward-facing and rear-facing seats. Check out CPSafety's rear-facing album to see pictures of children riding rear-facing well past their first birthday.
Here are two more very good resources on why rear facing is so much safer:
Child Safety Seats: Rear-Face Until at Least One Year rear-facing page
Why does the handle on my infant car seat have to be placed in the down position when installed?
The handle needs to be placed down for 2 reasons. In a crash the car seat will move towards the front of the vehicle/impact and then rebound (move upward towards the vehicle seat). As the seat rebounds, the handle may strike the interior of the vehicle and break becoming a projectile. It could hit a passenger and cause serious injury. Secondly, the baby may hit his head on the handle.
Which car seat is the safest?
The safest seat is one that fits your child, fits your vehicle, and one that you will use correctly each and every time. Car seats with a 5 pt. harness offer the best protection (visit CPSafety to learn why). Car-Safety.Org has a great guide to buying a carseat.
Where in my vehicle should I install my car seat?
The best location for your car seat is in the middle of the backseat. If you can't get a good fit there (the seat moves less than 1" when tugged at the belt path) then either outboard position in the back is safe. Children under the age of 13 should always ride in the back seat. NEVER put a rear-facing seat in front of an airbag.
Why can't I put my rear-facing seat in front of an airbag?
Putting a rear facing seat in-front of an airbag places the baby in serious danger. An airbag explodes with a force up to 200 pounds. When the bag inflates, it strikes the back of the car seat hard enough to break the plastic shell. This is usually the fatal blow. The airbag then slams the car seat into the back of the seat of the vehicle. If a child managed to survive this blow, he would suffer permanent brain damage.
What is a locking clip and do I need to use it?
A locking clip is an H shaped piece of metal and is used to keep the seat belt tight. A locking clip is needed when your seat belt system does not lock. It is very important to install the locking clip no more than 1" away from the seat belt buckle. Click here for more information regarding locking clips.
What is a tether strap?
A tether strap is a strap made of seat belt material that is attached to the back of the child restraint. It has a hook on the end that attaches to a tether anchor in your vehicle. The purpose of the tether strap is to reduce head excursion (the distance your child's head moves forward in a crash). Current standards do not mandate the use of the tether strap, however, it is an additional safety measure that should be used if possible. Consult your vehicle's manual to see if your vehicle is equipped with tether anchors. Any vehicle manufactured after Sept. 2002 is required to have anchors for tethering. Many vehicles manufactured after 1989 can be retrofitted with tether anchors. This is relatively easy and can be done yourself. The vehicle manual may have installation instructions. Contact your dealer for part information.
What is LATCH?
LATCH stand for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. It was designed to make the installation of a car seat easier. Please visit for more in-depth information on the LATCH system.
Where can I find a Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician?
Please visit one of the following sites to find a technician who is local to you:
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Child Seat Inspection Stations

Check All Winter Coats for Car Seat Safety

It's easy to check and see whether a baby's winter coat or infant snowsuit is too thick to be safe in a car seat. This test will show you how thick the coat is and how much the coat will compress during a crash.

Take the car seat into the house.
Put the winter coat or snowsuit on the child.
Put the child in the car seat and buckle the harnesses as you normally would before car travel. Adjust the straps to the appropriate fit for your child.
Take the child out of the car seat without loosening the straps at all.
Take the coat off your child.
Put the child back in the car seat and buckle the harnesses again, but do not tighten the straps.
If you can fit more than two fingers under the harness at the child's shoulder bone, the coat is too thick and is not safe for use with the car seat.

Here is a child in a coat that is too fluffy to go under the would not pass the test

A Note on Car Seat Covers

Many companies also offer thick car seat covers that act like a bunting for babies in the winter. Parents should avoid buying any car seat cover or car seat bunting that threads through the harness straps of their child's car seat. Often the packaging of these covers states that the product meets all federal car seat safety guidelines. However, there are no federal guidelines governing after-market car seat accessories. These extra car seat covers and buntings could interfere with the function of the car seat harness, and many car seat manufacturers will void your car seat warranty if after-market accessories are used.


TopHat said...

My husband wanted to turn Margaret around on her birthday, but I didn't. Luckily on the tag on our carseat it says that you have to be 20 pounds and 34 inches to be forward facing. Margaret is still many inches too short, so I was able to blame the carseat for her still being backward facing. Our seat would not be safe for a child less than 34 inches tall to face forward no matter what the legal limit is. I try to remind people to check their seat's limits- it very well might mean they stay backwards longer than they have to legally.

Joy said...

You go girl! It's nice to know that people sometimes listen to me :)

Sweetpea said...

Thanks for the info! My question is, at what point do you move a child from a 5-pt harness seat to a booster seat? I still have both of my kids in 5 pt harness seats, one of which is supposed to go up to 40 pounds, and the other to 100 pounds. My son is 4.5 and 34 pounds (and rides in the seat that goes up to 100 pounds) and my daughter is 2.5 and 26 pounds and rides in the convertible seat that goes up to 40 pounds. And what point should I think about moving my son into a booster seat?

Joy said...

I wouldn't move him until he is at least 5 and 40 lbs if he will sit in the booster correctly every.single.time. Meaning that he doesn't try to put the shoulder belt behind him, doesn't lean forward and get out of the belt, doesn't fall asleep and fall to the side out of the belt etc. The seat belt will only restrain him well if he sits in it properly. It's often difficult for adults to do this :) Most 6 year olds are big enough and mature enough to sit in a booster correctly.

What does his harnessed seat manual say about the height and weight limits? Some seats are outgrown by harness height or weight before a child is ready for a booster. The harness needs to be above the shoulders forward facing.

High back boosters offer more protection than backless, especially if the vehicle doesn't have headrests.

Elizabeth said...

Sarah! Thanks for posting this, it reminded me that I needed to adjust Elliot's car seat badly (the straps and his girth combined weren't allowing me to have the top clip positioned right) and reminded me that soon I need to switch him to his convertible seat (but still back-facing) because he is rapidly approaching the weight limit, lol.
You're so great and helpful!
Elliot appreciated it too btw, now instead of freaking out everytime we strapped him in, he smiles! I think he knows how it's supposed to fit.

Erin said...

Thanks for that post! It was very useful info. :)