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?” Just getting the car seat strapped in can be a complicated process that takes a while to figure out.
We’re here to help you better understand child safety seat laws and make it easier to choose the right system to keep your child secure. Keep reading!
Child Passenger Safety Statistics
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), accidental injuries are the number one cause of death for children ages 1-14 in the U.S. The vast majority of those injuries occur in car accidents.
A total of 639 child passengers under 13 years old were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2018. On a more positive note, the Insurance Information Institute estimates that in 2017 alone at least 325 kids under the age of 5 were saved by car seats.
While it may seem obvious that car seats and seat belts could curb this problem, the 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 in some states.
Through the use of child safety seats, the CDC predicts that the risk of injury in an auto accident can be reduced by up to 82% by using a car seat compared to a seat belt alone. And the use of a booster seat reduces injuries in 4-8 year olds by 45%.
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, 49 states along with Washington D.C. have child booster seat laws to protect children who are too small to utilize an adult seat belt. Eleven states have also made rear-facing car seats a requirement until the age of two.
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. The AAA also has a list of the latest child passenger safety laws by state.
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 seat safety guidelines.
There are four types of safety restraints for child passengers, and each one has a very specific purpose.
(Ideal for newborn – 24 months)
Also called an infant seat, this design is ideal for your child’s first few years of life. 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. As the name suggests, the seat is installed so that the child is facing the rear of the vehicle.
Special Note: If a child outgrows the height or weight limit for an infant car seat before age of one, 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 2nd birthday doesn’t mean their body is big enough to handle the stress of facing forward.
(Ideal for children from 2-5 years old)
When your child turns two 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 forward-facing, 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.
Special 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.
(Ideal for children from 5-8 years old)
The child booster seat law is in place to continue protecting your child as they grow. A booster seat is designed to raise your child up, preventing injury to their abdomen from the lap belt, and it protects their upper body by keeping the shoulder belt in place.
Special 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 noted above, use height and weight, not age, to determine when your child is ready to move to a seat belt.
If a child is over the age of eight and is large enough for the seat belt to work properly there’s no need for a booster seat. 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.
They can keep their feet flat on the floor.
Common Installation Mistakes
The CDC’s research reveals that up to 59% of car seats and 20% of booster seats aren’t installed correctly. 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 National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (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 stays safe, but don’t stop there. 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 no matter how short the trip is. A study from IDriveSafely found that 25% of parents don’t follow car seat rules on short trips. Unfortunately, you’re most likely to get in an accident close to home.
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 old, 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 essential steps to properly installing your car seat. To ensure your seat is in fact properly installed, there are car seat inspection areas across the nation. Some states even require a car seat inspection in order for parents to take newborns home from the hospital.
You can find a local inspection station by using the NHTSA safety inspection locator tool.
*This article was updated on 4/29/2020