Installing a child-safety seat isn't rocket science. That's what I thought until I saw the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's campaign that said the majority of parents believe their car seat is installed correctly, but in reality it's only a small fraction of them.
As the mother of three, I've been installing and buckling up car seats for more than five years. I thought I had car seats figured out, but certified car-seat technicians must take a 40-hour course before they begin volunteering at car-seat checks (find one near you). I recently had my three car seats checked by a friendly car-seat technician who confirmed that most people install their car seats incorrectly ... myself included. I thought I had my three car seats installed as tightly as possible, but the car-seat technician showed me how loose they were by tugging at the seats' belt paths, where they each moved more than the inch that's recommended.
According to the NHTSA, here are other examples of what many parents are doing wrong:
Chest clip is too low on child's torso: The correct position for the chest clip is at armpit level. Too often the clip slides down low onto the child's belly, making the "V" at their neck too deep. Why does that matter? In a crash, if the opening is too wide at the chest, the crash forces can cause your child to be forced up and out of those straps.
Harness straps are too loose: The straps should be snug enough that you cannot pinch any extra material at the shoulder. If your child is wearing a heavier coat, it can add a lot of slack to the harness.
Seat belt isn't locked when using it for car-seat installation: That annoying locking mechanism on seat belts actually has a purpose — make sure it's engaged when using it to secure your car seat. Depending on your car's age, there can be several kinds of locking mechanisms. Check your car's owners manual to learn how to use it.
Improperly used Latch and tether anchors: With forward-facing car seats, the tether anchor is a necessity. It's usually found on the rear shelf in sedans and on seatbacks in many hatchbacks, crossovers and minivans, but if you can't find it consult your car's owners manual. Using the tether anchor helps limit your child's forward head movement in a crash.
My informative car-seat check took less than an hour and was free. I can't think of a better way to spend an afternoon.
Cars.com photos by Evan Sears and BreAnn Ahara