The Golden State isn't just miles of spectacular coastline. There’s also nearly 400,000 miles of road. All of them are united by strict laws regarding the use of child safety seats. Wherever you are, following those laws is mandatory, even if you are just making a quick trip to the neighborhood grocery store.
Here’s the 4-1-1 on California's Car Seat Law so you can stay compliant every time you drive.
Infant Car Seat Requirements in California
California Car Seat Law requires all children under the age of two to be in rear-facing car seats in the back seat at all times. Even after turning two, they need to ride in a rear-facing seat if the child hasn’t met the height and weight requirements.
Is your child big enough to safely sit in a front-facing seat? When in doubt follow the 4-40-40 rule:
4+ years old
The height and weight guidelines are going to be a better indicator than age since children grow at different rates. Keep your baby in a rear-facing car seat until they are at least 40 pounds and 40 inches tall, which will probably be closer to age four than age two.
That is by design since California law says there are no exceptions for any child under two years old to be in any seat other than a rear-facing car seat. Today, many car seat manufacturers sell what’s known as convertible car seats. They convert from rear-facing to front-facing as the child grows. Convertible car seats make it easier and more affordable to ensure infants and toddlers are safe through various growth stages.
Switching to a Front-Facing Car Seat
Once your child meets the maximum height and weight limits of a rear-facing seat and is at least two years old, you can graduate to a front-facing car seat. Front-facing car seats are designed so that they are facing forward in the back of the vehicle and should have a five-point harness.
This type of car seat has weight and height guidelines as well. Be sure to read the manufacturer's manual to find the requirements and stick to them. And never put the car seat in the front seat. The airbags up front can cause serious injury or even death.
Switching from a Front-Facing Car Seat to a Booster Seat
Few people realize seatbelts are designed to optimally serve adult men of average height. They really don’t fit young children well, and an improper fit can lead to injuries in an accident.
After your child outgrows the front-facing car seat, a booster seat is the next step. Booster seats are made primarily for children between the ages of 4-8 years old to ensure that the seatbelt straps sit across the lap and chest safely.
Your child should keep using a booster seat until they meet safe seatbelt height of 4’9”.
Riding in the Back Seat is a Requirement
California car seat law requires that any child under two years old is secured in a rear-facing car seat in the back seat of the vehicle, but older kids also need to sit in the back because it’s safer than the front seat. Legally, children can’t sit in the front seat until they are eight years old, but even then it isn’t advisable.
If there is an airbag in the front passenger seat, it is never legal to have a rear-facing car seat in the front seat. The only exceptions when it’s acceptable for a properly restrained baby or child to ride in the front seat are:
There is no back seat in the vehicle, like in a truck or two-seater car.
The back seat is fully occupied by younger children.
Installing the car seat in the back seat is dangerous, for example, if the back seatbelts are broken.
The back seats are rear-facing or side-facing jump seats.
There are extenuating circumstances why the backseat cannot be safely used.
When your child is tall enough to safely graduate to wearing a seat belt only it’s still best for them to steer clear of the front seat. The backseat is always safest for children.
Car Seat Expiration Dates
Did you know car seats can expire? An expired car seat can put your child in serious danger because it may not operate as expected.
A car seat sits in a vehicle enduring wear and tear, temperature changes, sun exposure and general degradation of materials over time. One little weakness can mean that it won’t withstand the impact of a collision.
The expiration date and/or manufacture date is usually found with the serial number printed somewhere on the car seat. You may also find it in the owner’s manual. Don’t see an expiration date on your car seat? If there is no expiration date, never use a car seat that is more than six years older than the manufacturer's date.
Remember, a car seat is a vital safety device. Saving money with an outdated or used car seat is not as important as protecting your child's life.
When Can My Child Stop Using a Car Seat?
The latest California laws require that a child sit in a car seat or booster seat in the rear of the vehicle until they are eight years old. However, safe seatbelt use is a little more complicated.
Seatbelts are unsafe for anyone under 4'9" tall. Not waiting until this height requirement is met can result in serious injury in the event of an accident. Your child will probably want to sit like a big kid well before it's safe, which is why it’s important to explain doing so is against California’s car seat laws.
If your little one is getting big ahead of the curve, they can legally use a regular seat and safety belt under 8 years old if they are 4'9". However, some children won’t reach this milestone until around 12 years old, and until then they should use a booster seat.
Once your child is tall enough to use a regular seat, there are still a couple of other guidelines you should know about.
Child Seatbelt Safety Requirements
- The lap belt rests low on the hips, touching the upper thighs.
- The seatbelt lies comfortably across the center of the child's chest.
Their legs should also be long enough to bend over the seat at the knees.
Car Seat Safety While Traveling
Following the guidelines above is important every time you drive with your child in the vehicle. Even if you only plan to drive a few miles the laws are still in effect. Unfortunately, a survey conducted by IDriveSafely found that 25% of parents don’t properly strap babies and children into car seats when they plan to drive a mile or less. Additionally, 76% said they were less likely to use a car seat on a short trip.
If you are tempted to forgo the car seat remember this - a Progressive Insurance study found that 52% of car accidents occur within five miles of a person’s home. Just because you’re going a short distance it doesn’t lower the risk of an accident.
Planning a road trip? Car seat laws vary state-to-state. California has some of the most comprehensive car seat laws so if you’re traveling out of state you should be good. But you’ll still need to check with the local highway patrol or public health department for car seat and seat belt laws.
Check that your baby or toddler car seats conform to all state laws where you'll be traveling. If you are renting a car, be sure you have the safest car seat for that vehicle. Next, follow the manufacturer's instructions for how to safely put your car seat in each type of vehicle.
Car Seat Inspections in California
If there’s any doubt that the car seat isn’t installed properly you can have it inspected by a professional for free. The California Highway Patrol (CHP) provides this service. Car seat inspections are a part of the ongoing California Restraint Safety Education and Training (CARSEAT) III campaign.
The dates and times for car seat inspections vary, and you may need to schedule an appointment. Call your local CHP office for details on when and where you can get your car seat install inspected.
*This article was updated on 4/24/2020