Car seats are critical to keeping your child safe, but they can be confusing — there's a seemingly endless array of sizes and types, and your child will need a few different kinds to make it through childhood safely. It's no wonder that according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, many car seats are installed incorrectly — a terrifying prospect considering NHTSA data shows car crashes are a leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 13.
In fact, one NHTSA study determined that as many as four out of five car seats are installed incorrectly, be it from loose latch straps, twisted webbing or using the wrong seat based on a child's weight and height.
Cars.com's three certified child passenger safety technicians each spent 40 hours in the classroom learning how to correctly install a car seat. This week is Child Passenger Safety Week, so let's clear up some common car-seat misconceptions.
1. Using a seat belt to install your car seat isn't as safe as using the Latch system.
False. If done correctly, using a seat belt is just as safe. To install with a seat belt, make sure the seat belt's retractor is in the locked position, preventing the car seat from moving. Read these step-by-step instructions. When in doubt, consult your vehicle's owner's manual.
2. Once it's installed, the car seat won't need to be tightened.
False. Each time you strap your child in, give the seat a shake to make sure the straps are still tight. They will loosen over time. Check your car seat by grabbing it near the belt path and giving it a tug; if it moves more than an inch in any direction, adjust it to get a tighter fit.
3. Loose straps are OK; I don't want the harness to be too tight.
False. You should not be able to pinch any of the strap webbing. If you can, it's not tight enough. And where the straps sit matter: If your child is in a rear-facing seat, the harness shoulder straps should be at or below shoulder level; in a forward-facing seat, the straps should be at or above the shoulders, and the chest clip should be at armpit level.
4. Using the top tether anchor is optional.
False. When installing a forward-facing car seat, always connect the car seat's top tether strap to the car's anchor. This important step can reduce a child's head and neck movement in a crash by up to 8 inches. Unfortunately, many caregivers forget to attach it since the anchor is often out of sight behind the seat.
5. I can turn my baby forward-facing after a year.
False. Babies and toddlers should remain rear-facing until they outgrow the height or weight limit of their rear-facing car seat, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Children are much safer riding in a rear-facing car seat than in a forward-facing one because of how the seat protects the head and neck in a crash. But what about leg injuries for taller kids whose feet are pushed into the seatback? Minor, say experts from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Leg injuries are relatively rare in rear-facing children and, more importantly, according to the doctors, leg injuries are far less serious than the head, neck and spine injuries that could occur if a child is in a forward-facing car seat.
6. My older child doesn't need a booster.
False. For older children, the risks are no less severe if they're moved out of a booster too soon. A booster protects children who are too large for a car seat but too small for a seat belt, and children should remain in one until they reach 4 feet, 9 inches tall. Boosters raise the child up so the lap belt sits snugly across a child's upper thighs and the shoulder belt sits across the child's shoulder and chest, putting the crash forces on strong parts of the body. Seat belts that incorrectly rest on the stomach or neck can cause deadly injuries in a crash.
According to research from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, kids age 4 to 8 riding in booster seats are 45 percent less likely to be injured in a crash compared with children using just a seat belt. NHTSA recommends that kids remain in a booster until they're at least 8 years old or 4 feet, 9 inches tall, and this is the law in many states.
Figuring out what car seats your family needs is not easy, and more help is available. Click here to find a certified child passenger safety technician and a car seat check station close to home.
Editor's note: This post was updated Nov. 1, 2018, to include new information from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
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