From the day your child is born, you instinctively want to keep him or her safe. The first time you secure your newborn into an infant car seat, you may wonder, “Am I doing this right? Will my child really be safe?” We’re here to help you better understand child safety seat laws and make it easier to choose the right system and keep your child secure.
Child Passenger Safety Statistics
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), car crashes are the number one cause of death for children ages 1-12 in the U.S. In addition, over 1,300 child passengers 14 years or younger were killed and approximately 179,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes in 2009. And while it may seem obvious that car seats or seat belts could curb this problem, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) discovered that annually, more than 618,000 kids 12 and under ride in vehicles without being properly restrained. That’s definitely a traffic violation that comes with fines and penalties – and it’s grounds to have your license suspended.
Through the use of child safety seats, the CDC predicts that the risk of death in an auto accident can be reduced by 71% for infants and 54% for children ages 1-4 simply through the use of safety seats. And booster seats can help too, reducing the risk of death for kids ages 4-7 by 59% as compared to seat belt use.
National Child Safety Seat Laws
No matter where you drive in the U.S., a child passenger needs to be safely buckled in. According to the Governor’s Highway Safety Association (GHSA), all 50 states plus Guam, Washington D.C., the Northern Mariana Islands, and the Virgin Islands, have strict child safety seat laws. In addition, 48 states have child booster seat laws to protect children who are too small to utilize an adult seat belt.
Fines for violating car seat or child seat belt laws can range from $10 to $500 on a first offense. In addition, some states will place points on your driving record for a safety seat citation. You can read more about your state’s laws and penalties on the GHSA website.
Child Passenger Safety Requirements & Guidelines
With a variety of car seat brands, shapes, and sizes on the market, it can be difficult to understand the different child seat requirements. Age, height, and weight all factor into car safety seat guidelines.
There are 4 types of safety restraints for child passengers, and each one has a very specific purpose:
Rear-facing (ideal for newborn – 12 months): Also called an infant seat, this design is ideal for your child’s first year. A rear-facing seat features a harness to keep a child secure and is designed to cradle your child to prevent harmful neck and spinal injuries in the case of a crash.
- Please Note: If a child outgrows the height or weight limit for an infant car seat before age 1, you should move them into a rear-facing car seat with higher size limits. On the flip side, if your child is small, keep them in the rear-facing position as long as possible. Just because they reached their 1st birthday doesn’t mean their body is big enough to handle the stress of facing forward.
Forward-facing: When your child turns 1 and meets the minimum weight and height limit, you can put them in a forward-facing seat. Front-facing seats have a harness-style strap system designed to limit your child’s movement in a crash. This style seat is the safest way for children to travel, and most brands offer ample adjustments to allow growing children to remain comfortable for several years. You should keep your child in a forward-facing car seat as long as possible. Once your child outgrows the maximum height and/or weight limit, you’ll then move them into a booster seat.
- Please Note: There is no rush to get your child into a booster seat. The harness design of this type of seat keeps a child’s chest, head, and neck secure in an accident. Use height and weight limits, not age, to determine the safest seat choice for your child.
Booster seat: The child booster seat law is in place to continue your child’s safety as they grow. A booster seat is designed to raise your child up, preventing injury to their abdomen from the lap belt, and protects their upper body by keeping the shoulder belt in place.
- Please Note: Children should remain in a booster seat until they are tall enough for a seat belt to fit properly and keep them safe. As above, use height and weight, not age, to determine when your child is ready to move to a seat belt.
Seat belt: A seat belt fits properly when the lap portion lies snugly across the child’s upper thighs — not their stomach— and the shoulder belt lies snugly across the shoulder and chest — not across the neck or face. Here are some tips to ensure a seat belt is holding your child securely:
- Your child is tall enough to sit without slouching and they can keep their back against the seat
- They can bend their knees comfortably over the edge of the seat
- The can keep their feet flat on the floor
Common Installation Mistakes
According to the NHTSA, 1 out of every 3 car seats is installed incorrectly. Before you install any car seat, refer to your vehicle’s owner’s manual as well as the car seat instruction manual. Newer cars are equipped with special Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) systems that can increase the overall stability of a properly-installed car seat.
Here are a few of the most common car seat installation mistakes, as outlined by the NHTSA:
- Using the wrong harness slot: The straps should be positioned either level with or just below a child’s shoulders.
- The harness clip is too high, too low, or not used at all: When using an infant seat or forward-facing seat, be sure the chest clip is even with your child’s armpits. It should not sit across their abdomen, or any higher on their chest. And, it should always be used to keep your child secure in the seat.
- Car seat is too loose: A properly installed seat should allow less than 1 inch of movement side to side or front to back. Hold the seat near the bottom attachment points and test how much it moves.
- Harness is too loose: A harness is too loose if there are more than 2 inches of slack between the child’s chest and the straps. Ideally, there should be no slack, and the straps should sit flat without any twists or bumps.
Child Passenger Safety Tips
Obeying child passenger safety laws can help ensure your young one’s safety. Here are some additional tips to consider when buckling children in:
- Always choose the seat appropriate for your child’s size and age. While you might think they’ll “grow into it,” putting a child in a seat that’s too big for their body size could risk injury, or worse.
- Use a car seat every time your child is a passenger, and keep them in a safety seat as long as possible.
- Children should ride in the back seat until they are at least 12 years of age. Smaller, lighter kids should continue to ride in the back. While airbags and other front-seat safety features may make your vehicle seem safer overall, most of these are designed for an adult’s height and weight.
- Every passenger, whether they are 20 months or 20 years, should be buckled in. While your state’s regulations might not require safety belt use after a certain age, the easiest way to ensure everyone’s safety is to use a seat belt every time a car is in motion.
Child Safety Seat Programs
Using your owner’s manual as well as the car seat instructions are obvious steps to properly installing your car seat. To ensure your seat is properly installed, there are car seat inspection areas across the nation. You can find a local inspection station by using the NHTSA safety inspection locator tool.