As a parent, you do your best to protect your child and minimize risks by every means possible, including driving safely to prevent auto accidents. However, some crashes just can’t be prevented, in which case a car set will dramatically reduce your child’s risk of serious injury or death.
However, not just any car seat will do. To keep your child as safe as possible, it is imperative that you use the proper car seat for your child’s age and size, and that you follow proper use and installation guidelines.
Why you need a car seat
The sad reality is that car crashes kill more children in the US than any other type of child injury, causing nearly 700 child deaths annually. Over 120,000 children are injured in car crashes annually, many of whom sustain grave and life-changing injuries.
Fortunately, proper use of car seats significantly reduces the risk of death in car crashes, decreasing the fatality rate by 71% in infants and 54% for toddlers. Further, the proper use of seat belts (including seat belt adjustment devices) in older children decreases the risk of serious injury or death by up to 50%.
Car seat selection: finding the right fit
The most important aspect of selecting a car seat for your child is not cost – or even brand – but rather finding the right fit. Some models may have better safety ratings than others, but every car seat on the market has to meet rigorous safety standards.
So what is the most important factor in selecting a safe car set for your child? Choosing one that is the right type and size for his or her developmental stage. What does that mean?
There are five stages of child car restraint, including prenatal, rear facing, forward facing, booster seats or seat belt adjusters, and seat belt only. Age can be considered a general guideline for car seat stage, but because children grow at different rates, your child may need an earlier or later stage despite their age.
Let’s look at the five different types of car seats.
Prenatal. We think it’s important to include the prenatal stage here, as special seat belt adjustments are needed to protect your unborn baby while pregnant. Pregnant women should always wear seatbelts, and should also use a crash-tested pregnancy seat belt positioner. This will direct the seat belt away from the pregnancy, minimizing impact to the unborn child.
Rear-facing. A rear-facing car seat should be used from birth until at least two years of age, and ideally up until four years of age. Although a rear-facing car seat is less convenient to use, studies have shown that rear facing is five times safer, as the child’s head, neck and back are protected by the car seat.
Car seats intended for infants can only be used in rear-facing position. A full-size convertible car seat can be used as either a rear or forward-facing car seat, and is ideal as it allows the child to remain rear-facing for longer. Select a seat that is rated to be used in the rear-facing position until the child weighs at least 30 pounds.
Today, there are rear-facing seats that can accommodate larger children as well – some as much as 50 pounds or more. Many parents decide to move their child into a forward-facing seat because they are afraid of their kid being uncomfortable in a rear-facing one, but as long as they are within the seat’s maximum allowances, this should not be an issue.
Remember, rear-facing seats offer the most protection regardless of age. If safety is your utmost concern, a rear-facing seat is best.
Forward facing. Forward-facing seats are the next stage. At a minimum, children should be at least two years of age before using a forward-facing seat, but ideally should be 3-4 years of age. Children should be kept in a forward-facing seat with a five-point harness until they reach 5-6 years of age.
Your child should use his or her forward-facing seat until (a) His or her height or weight exceeds the seat’s maximum limits, (b) The shoulders are above the top harness, or (c) The ears reach the top edge of the car set.
Booster seat or belt positioning. A booster seat or belt-positioning device functions to position the adult seat belt such that the 3-point seat belt is still contacting the child’s shoulders and hips, rather than the neck and abdomen.
A high-back booster seat is the safest option at this stage, as it keeps the shoulder strap in the proper position, even if the child leans down or is moving. Other options include backless booster seats and travel vests that position the seat belt.
Seat belt only. When children meet the below criteria they may begin using a seat belt only:
- Child can sit with lower back against the seat and feet on the car floor.
- Child can keep his or her knees bent at the edge of the seat.
- The lap belt rests on the thighs.
- The shoulder belt crosses at the midshoulder/midchest region.
- The child can comfortably sit in this manner for the entire ride.
Children generally aren’t ready to use a seat belt only until they reach 9-12 years of age and weigh at least 49 pounds. Also, children under 13 should always ride in the back seat.
Proper car seat use
After you have selected your child’s car seat, you must ensure that it is properly installed. If you have never installed a car seat or have questions, be sure to have it professionally installed and/or inspected. Find a local car seat inspection station, where a certified technician can inspect the car seat and show you how to install and use it.
Also ensure that the harness fits correctly. A properly fitting harness should be snug enough that only a single finger fits underneath, and should be even with the armpits. Also avoid the use of accessories such as car seat covers or head positioners that did not come with the car seat.
Never buy a used car seat, use a car seat that has been involved in a crash, or use a car seat that has been recalled.
Auto safety goes beyond car seats
Child car safety doesn’t stop at car seats. Pay attention to your auto manufacturer’s recalls as well. Some recalls may even affect car seat use specifically, for example BMW’s recall of car seat anchors.
Also be aware of other auto safety precautions specific to children. Never leave your child in the car unattended, especially during the summer months, when overheating can rapidly cause severe injury or death.
About the Author:
Since 1994, seasoned litigation and trial lawyer Anthony B. White has helped thousands of accident victims seek damages due to injuries sustained as a result of another party’s negligence. Included in America’s Registry of Outstanding Professionals and selected to the 2012, 2013, and 2014 editions of Florida Super Lawyers, Mr. White specializes in car accidents, insurance disputes, wrongful death, product liability, and medical malpractice cases. He is a longstanding member of the Florida Justice Association and the American Association for Justice and currently sits on the Board of Directors of the Broward County Justice Association.