Are you Making the Right Choice?

By Stephanie Shaw

Did you know that motor vehicle-related deaths are a leading cause of unintentional death for children in the United States?

Did you know that in 2015, nearly 500 children under age 7—many of whom were unrestrained—were killed in motor vehicle crashes?

Did you know that children are safest when using a child safety seat or booster seat, but nearly half of child car seats and booster seats are used incorrectly?

For parents, these statistics might be terrifying and overwhelming. As a parent and volunteer child passenger safety technician, I take comfort in knowing that the best way to protect my own children is to properly use age-appropriate child car seats and booster seats. But with so many messages out there and so many options for child car seats and booster seats, how does the average parent choose the right one?

Today, I want to share the answers to some of the questions I’ve gotten from parents and caregivers regarding car seats and booster seats.

Q. Which child car seat is the safest?

A. All child car seats must meet the same federal safety standards, but car seat designs vary. That’s why it’s critical to look for a seat that’s recommended for your child’s height and weight.

Q. So, I just need to buy the right car seat?

A. Not so fast. Buying the right seat for your child is the first step, but it still falls on the adult to install and use the car seat properly every time.

Q. How do I install and use a child car seat?

A. Read carefully and follow the instructions that came with your car seat, and also consult your vehicle owner’s manual; both provide steps for how and where to install the seat in your vehicle. All children should ride properly secured in a car seat or booster seat in the back seat. If you would like help installing your seat, visit Safe Kids Worldwide to locate a child passenger safety technician in your area.

Q. When do you change from rear-facing to forward-facing seats?

A. Children under the age of 2 are best protected when they are in a rear-facing car seat in the back seat, as their spine and neck are not developed enough to support their head in the event of a crash. It’s recommended that even children older than age 2 remain rear facing until they outgrow the rear-facing height or weight limit for their seat. When children outgrow a rear-facing car seat, they should use a forward-facing car seat with an internal harness and tether.

Q. When is my child ready to ride like an adult passenger?

A. Children aren’t ready to ride like adult passengers until the adult seat belt fits them properly; usually when they are 4’9” tall. Until then, they should use a booster seat. Booster seats help children fit in an adult seat belt. Children seated in a booster seat in the back seat of the car are 45 percent less likely to be injured in a crash than children using a seat belt alone. But don’t be in a rush to move your child into a booster seat or seat belt! Children are best protected when using a car seat with an internal harness.

Q. How can you tell when an adult seat belt fits a child properly?

A. A seat belt fits properly when the lap belt lies snugly across the user’s upper thighs, not the stomach. The shoulder belt should lie snugly across the user’s shoulder and chest without crossing the neck or face.

Q. When is my child old enough to sit up front with me?

A. Until your child properly fits an adult seat belt, he or she should always ride in the back seat, and should always use the right-sized child car seat or booster seat. Different-sized children need to be protected differently (read on!).

Q. What are common mistakes to look out for when using a car seat?

A. Some common mistakes parents and caregivers make include:

  • using a forward-facing child car seat too soon;
  • installing the car seat too loosely and allowing the seat to move more than 1 inch at the belt path;
  • allowing the harness straps to fit loosely so they fail the pinch test; and
  • placing the chest clip too low, rather than at armpit level.

To help avoid some of these common mistakes, read the instructions that came with your car seat as well as your vehicle owner’s manual. Reading these instructions will help you determine whether to use a seat belt or the lower anchors, and when to use the tether to secure your seat. Your car seat instructions will help you position the car seat (rear facing, forward facing, or reclined) and properly use the internal harness, chest-clip, and buckle.

Q. How can I get hands-on help?

A. You’re in luck! It’s Child Passenger Safety Week, so child passenger safety technicians and other safety professionals are hosting events nationwide where parents and caregivers can get hands-on help to ensure their child is in the most appropriate car seat, and that it is installed and being used properly. Saturday, September 23, is National Seat Check Saturday; to find an event in your community, visit www.safercar.gov. And help is also available year-round, too. Find a car seat check event or child passenger safety technician in your area to make sure you’re using the right seat, every trip, every time.

Car seats, booster seats, and seat belts are a child’s best defense against injury and death in the event of a motor vehicle crash. Be sure you’re making the right choice to protect your child!

Stephanie Shaw is an NTSB Safety Advocate in the Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications and a certified child passenger safety technician.

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