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Safety September: Car Seat Safety

No person expects a serious car accident, but riding in a car safely and with every occupant strapped in correctly every ride can avoid the unthinkable. Read below for some common misuses in car seats, as well as some tips to stay safe in the car.*

*These tips do not override the car seat or vehicle manual for safety requirements. Please refer to each of your manuals, car seat and vehicle, when looking at what is or isn’t required for your specific seat. Reach out to a CPST or make an appointment for a car seat check if you are looking for specific help with your car seat. Resources below.

In the United States, car seat testing is a pass-fail system. All car seats sold by reputable retailers are safe, no matter the cost of the seat. Some seats have more convenience factors, softer fabric, or other enticing additions but all car seats are safe to use if installed correctly. The safest a child can be is in a safely installed and harnessed car seat. If you are wanting to take to the internet to research crash test statistics, know only one brand releases crash test results, Clek. All other tests or test results on the internet are unreliable as they were completed in an unregulated testing environment.

You can use this handout from the Minnesota Safe Kids Program for Considerations with Picking out a Seat:

MN Car Seat Safety Matters
Download PDF • 654KB

This will help with choosing and installing a car seat. It includes a safety checklist, 5 steps to consider with a car seat, and the 5-step test for seatbelt readiness.

The 5 steps to consider when picking out or using a car seat are:

  • Find the best car seat for you.

o The limits that are best for your child. i.e. higher height limits, higher harness slots, higher weight limits.

o The seat that fits best in your vehicle. i.e. if you have a small car you will need a seat that is narrow front to back or if you need to fit seats side-by-side you will need seats that are narrow side to side.

o A seat that you are comfortable with and able to install independently. Car seats will loosen over time or you may need to move it to a different car with little notice, it is safest to be able to install whatever seat you have.

  • Rear-facing is safest.

o The AAP recommends keeping a child rear-facing until age 2-4.

o Best practice for rear-facing is to max out the rear-facing limits of your car seat. That is your child reaching the height limit, weight limit, or 1” clearance rule (in most seats).

o The bare minimum for turning a child forward facing is two years old due to the development of the spine. The bones in a spine are still fusing together, called spinal ossification, and the longer a child has to develop rear facing the safer they are in the car.

  • Install tightly every time.

o You cannot use the lower anchors and seatbelt together, so choose one installation method and ensure you get a tight install.

o To check the tightness of the installation, you check at the belt path with the force of a firm handshake. If the seat moves less than 1” it is a safe and tight install.

o For rear-facing seats, the back of the seat, the part furthest from the installation point, will lift up and off the seat. A rear-facing seat should lift up in the back as that is how it protects a child in an accident. The front of the seat, where it is installed, is tight against the seat and the rest of the seat can move, like the branches of a tree. This allows the seat to absorb some of the impact in an accident and will cocoon around your child for safety. Additionally, picking it up or checking the back of the seat for tightness is not how you check the installation and can damage the seat if you are shaking, pushing, or pulling from there.

o For forward-facing seats, ensure you are using the top tether in addition to the latch or seatbelt installation. The top tether reduces the forward impact on a child in the event of an accident and increases safety, as well as being required in almost every forward-facing seat.

§ Not all vehicles have a tether hook in every seating position. Ensure where you are installing the seat has a designated tether hook for your seat. Each hook can only be used for one seat.

§ Pickup trucks have different tether hooks than any other car. Refer to your manual if installing a forward-facing car seat in a pickup.

  • Read vehicle and car seat manuals.

o The car seat must be installed according to the car manufacturer's instructions as well as the car seat instructions. Ensure you are clear on the rules and limits of both when installing a car seat.

  • Position harness straps properly.

o Rear-facing car seat straps should be at or below the child’s shoulders.

o Forward-facing car seat straps should be at or above the child’s shoulders.

o The harness should be snug, flat, and untwisted when buckled.

o Are you unsure if the straps are below or above the shoulders? Take a butter knife and hold the tip against the strap slot at the shell of the seat and rest the edge on the child’s shoulder. If the handle of the knife is angling up, then the straps are below. If the handle of the knife is angling down, the straps are above.

o When using a harnessed booster for an older child keep an eye on their torso height. Torso height can cause the straps to curve below their shoulders sometimes before they have reached the weight or height limit. If the straps can no longer go above the shoulders as the seat requires, then the seat is outgrown and it is time for a different car seat or the next kind of seat.

o The crotch buckle also has requirements for which slot it is in. Often if the child's body, not the diaper, is sitting on the buckle it is time to move it to the next slot. All seats have requirements for crotch buckle placement while forward or rear facing so make sure to read your manual to ensure it is in the appropriate slot in the shell.

The 5 Step Test to Determine Seatbelt Readiness:

These are the five criteria a child must pass to safely ride in a vehicle without a booster seat. Remember, car seatbelts are made and safety tested for fully mature adult-size bodies.

  1. Does the child sit all the way back against the vehicle seat?

  2. Do the child’s knees bend comfortably at the edge of the vehicle seat? a. If your child’s knees aren’t bending comfortably, they are likely to slide forward to get to a comfortable position. This would move the seatbelt to an unsafe position on the child’s body. Look for a 90-degree bend in their legs to pass this step, feet flat on the ground is another indicator of passing this step and the appropriate bend in the knees.

  3. Does the belt cross the shoulder between the neck and arm? a. The seatbelt should be laying flat across the shoulder and not pressing against the child’s neck. The seatbelt should also not be hovering over the child’s shoulder as it cannot function properly in the event of an accident.

  4. Is the lap belt as low as possible, touching the thighs? a. Ensure the seatbelt is across the hips and thighs, not across the belly of the child.

  5. Can the child stay like this for the whole trip? a. Is your child working to keep their legs at a 90-degree angle at the end of the seat? Are their feet not flat on the floor? Is the child straining to stay upright so the seatbelt is across their shoulder? All of these will cause fatigue and the child will slouch or move, changing the belt fit. A low-profile, forward-facing booster is the best option if your child is still within the limits while they are still growing.

General Car Seat Progression and Timeline**

​Infant Seat

​Birth-12 Months

​Infants will outgrow limits anywhere from 9-12 months, typically.

​Rear Facing Convertible Car Seat

​Birth- 4 Years

​Many convertible seats will fit newborns and will last anywhere from 3-5 years, the bare minimum to move to forward-facing is 2 years.

​Forward Facing Harnessed or Combination Seat

​3- 6 Years

​This forward-facing harness seat will mature with your child until they can sleep sitting up and are mature enough to leave their legs down and sit up the entire ride.

​High Back Booster

​6- 8 Years

​The back on the booster reminds children to stay sitting up while sleeping and with the newfound freedom of a harness.

No Back Booster

​6- 12 Years

​A no back booster provides the same belt fit as a high back booster when using the seatbelt guide that comes in the package. There are less reminders to sit up when using this seat.


​10- 12 Years

​A child is not ready for only a seatbelt until they pass the 5-step test (listed above).

**This is a general guide. It is recommended to max out the limits on the seat you are using before switching to the next kind of seat. If a child outgrows a seat by the limit before the age listed, the seat is outgrown and the next seat must be used. It is not safe to use a car seat past the listed limits.

Car Seat Cleaning Procedures

There is one right way to clean a car seat, just like there is one right way to use and install the car seat. All the necessary information is in the car seat manual which you can refer to for instructions or questions. The following are common requirements but check your specific car seat manual for cleaning instructions for your specific seat.

  • Clean only with mild soap and water

o Straps: the straps can’t be submerged in water so use a damp washcloth and Dawn dish soap to gently wipe the straps clean.

o Car Seat Cover: some covers are machine washable tumble dry, some are machine washable drip dry, and others are spot clean only. Refer to your manual to see which type of seat you have.

§ Machine washable: use only basic detergent like Tide or All, and ensure there are no additives like vinegar, oxy clean, or other harsh chemicals.

§ Spot Clean: use a washcloth and either some Dawn dish soap, to gently clean the dirty spots.

o Car Seat Shell: this cannot be submerged, hosed down, or rinsed off. Soaking a car seat can compromise the metal pieces on the inside. Spot clean the shell with a damp rag and mild soap like Dawn.

o Clorox wipes and other antibacterial cleaners are not recommended because they can break down the fibers and webbing of the harness and car seat rendering it unsafe.

  • Shake out or use a vacuum to get crumbs out of the seat.

  • Set in the sun for a day or two if it has a bad smell. The sun can kill germs and smells if the seat is left out.

  • If your straps are getting dirty repeatedly and you feel you can’t keep them clean enough, put a bib on your child OVER the straps after they have been harnessed in. This will keep the straps clean from anything that may get on them during a ride.

Common Car Seat Misuses and How to Resolve Them:

  • Latch Borrowing Installation in the Center Seat

o Almost all car seats have a latch system, it is using the hooks on the car seat to attach to metal bars installed in the car. Not every seating position in a car has the latch hooks to use, often in the middle seat. If you are wanting to install a car seat in the middle seat you need to find out if the car has dedicated latch anchors in the center seating position. If there are no dedicated latch anchors in the center and you would like to install using the latch method, read the car seat manual to see if the brand and car seat model allow it, then read the vehicle manual to see if the vehicle allows it. Most car seats and cars do not allow latch borrowing. To install a car seat in the center seating position, a seatbelt installation is usually required.

  • Double Installing a Car Seat

o Most car seats have a latch or seatbelt installation option. With few exceptions, the installation is latch OR seatbelt, never both. Using two installation methods will mask a bad install as well as work against each other in the event of an accident. It could break a seat or cause it to fail in an accident. Choose one installation and make sure your child is within the limits of using a latch installation.

  • Exceeding Car Seat Limits

o Every car seat has safety limits both for the installation method and the length of use. For the installation, the latch installation has a weight maximum. When a child reaches the maximum weight for the latch (this weight is considered with a full belly, fully clothed, and wearing shoes) then a seatbelt installation must be used to ensure the seat will perform appropriately in a crash.

o Child size requirements: every car seat has limits of height, weight, and rear-facing often has a 1” clearance rule. These requirements apply when a child has reached ONE limit. Once any one of the limits is reached, the car seat is outgrown. These limits and the 1” clearance rule can be found in the car seat manual. For example, if you are using an infant bucket seat with a 30” height limit and a 30-pound weight requirement and your infant is 29 pounds it is time to switch as the second they exceed the 30 pounds, fully clothed with a full belly, the car seat is not guaranteed to perform in an accident. Also keep an eye on the 1” clearance above the head, if required. When the car seat is installed in the car, take a book that is 1” thick and place it flush against the head. If the book fits within the shell of the car seat, the child is still within the limits of the seat if their height and weight are also below the limits.

  • Chest Clip Level

o The chest clip has one job, to position the straps appropriately on the shoulders. That means there is one correct placement for the chest clip. The top of the chest clip should be in line with the armpits.

  • Harness Tightness

o The 5-point harness, in a harnessed car seat, is what holds a child in the event of a car accident. It should be snug as a hug and the fabric of the harness should not be able to be pinched between the thumb and index finger at the shoulder level. If you are concerned about over-tightening, do a reverse pinch test where you hold the fabric of the harness between the thumb and index finger and pull the tightening strap until the fabric slips out from between the two fingers. To ensure the hip straps and shoulder straps are equally tight, keep the clipped chest clip all the way down by the crotch buckle, tighten the harness to pass the pinch test, then slide the chest clip into position even with the armpits.

o For infants, it is often necessary to remove the harness covers for an appropriate fit in the seat. Check the car seat manual to ensure they are not required; most are not required. The strap covers can interfere with the harness tightness as well as chest clip positioning when the infant is still small. If you are concerned about the straps rubbing on the child’s neck you can pull up the collar of their shirt between their skin and the harness straps.

o If you cannot get your straps to the appropriate tightness check your manual to see if you have all the straps routed correctly for your sized child.

  • Vehicle Seat Covers

o Seat covers are brand dependent, and it will state in your manual. Ensure if your car seat brand allows something under the seat that it is thin and not grippy as that can mask a bad installation. Also, keep an eye underneath the cover as it can trap moisture and crumbs making for a dirty car seat that can grow unwanted guests.

  • Accessories

o No additions to a car seat are approved by manufacturers. This includes head supports, strap covers, winter inserts, or toys. These things are not only flammable, but they also interfere with the straps and are not crash-tested by the company. Only use what is in the box of the car seat. Any items marketed for car seats are not safe if they go between the car seat and the child. Head inserts for infants, if not included in the box, both interfere with the straps and increase positional asphyxiation by preventing the head from moving from side to side to protect the airway.

o Pacifier clips should never be attached to the seat but to the child’s clothing. Attaching clips to the fabric of the harness or seat can cause it to fray, affect the integrity of the straps, and possibly cause the harness to fail in the case of an accident.

o Only thin jackets can be worn under a car seat harness. If you are unsure of the thickness of a jacket, buckle a child in wearing the jacket and tighten it appropriately. Then unbuckle without changing the tightness and buckle the child in again without the jacket. If the harness is loose, then the jacket is too thick and needs to be taken off in the car. The jacket can be worn backward after they are buckled, or you can put a blanket on their lap.

o Infant bucket seats have warmers that can be attached to the seat. Do not use anything that goes behind the child in the seat, but use the kind that fit over the seat like a shower cap. It is recommended to take off the cover completely while riding in the car to keep the child from overheating.

  • Head Support

o Infant seats often come with head supports in the car seat, those may be used but no other head supports can be added. It is safe for a child's head to bobble and turn side to side as this is how they protect their airway. Sometimes large head supports press the infant's head forward in the seat and, if allowed by the car seat, can be removed to ensure a safe fit.

o Forward facing car seats, as long as the straps are still coming out at or above the shoulders, and your child is within the limits of the seat, head support is required to the tops of the ears. If your child’s head is above the seat, and they are within the limits, the seat is not outgrown until the limits are met or their ears are clearing the top of the seat.

o In a no back booster seat, a vehicle head support is required behind the head. This keeps the head from snapping backward too far in the event of an accident. If the seating position does not have a vehicle headrest, then a different seating position must be chosen, or a high back booster seat. The head support on a vehicle headrest should also go to at least the tops of the ears.

  • Seat Expiration

o In no case is it appropriate to use an expired car seat. The expiration date is likely stamped into the plastic on the bottom of the car seat. There is also a date of manufacture sticker on the side of the car seat and you can look in the manual to see how many years the seat is good for. Every seat has a different length of use, refer to your manual to find out the life of the car seat.

o Car seats are life-saving devices containing plastic, metal, and fabric to keep a child safe in a crash. All these components degrade over time and the company shares that the length the seat can be relied upon for safety. Once the expiration is reached, the seat needs to be disposed of.

o To dispose of a car seat cut the straps and you can put it out with the trash or look for car seat recycling near you.

Common Myths

  • “A child with long legs will break their legs if they stay rear-facing.” Incorrect

o A child is much more likely to break their legs when forward facing because of the forward movement of the car. Unless you make a habit of driving everywhere in reverse, in the event of an accident you will be traveling forward or the car hitting you will be. This will cause your car to jolt forward and all the passengers with it. If a child is rear-facing, they will be pushed back into their seat and safely cocooned by the seat. If a child is forward facing, they are more likely to get their legs stuck on the seat in front of them during the impact. This is why it is unsafe to allow your forward-facing child to put their feet on the seat in front of them when out for a ride. If they want their feet up they can sit crisscross in their harnessed seat, get an inflatable stool, or Styrofoam cooler for them to set their feet on while driving. Once a child is in a seat belt they need to keep their feet down to keep the seatbelt across their hips, so a short stool is only an option if there is room without pushing their legs up.

  • “My child is uncomfortable with their legs pressed against the back seat.” Incorrect

o When have you curled up on the couch when relaxing or crossed your legs to sit on the ground? It is a natural motion to curl up, and if you watch your child during the day they will twist and contort however they want and are comfortable. The car seat is no different, and they are likely to be more comfortable with their legs up the back of the seat, crossed, or over the sides of the seat rather than dangling down if they were forward facing.

  • “My child is big for their age so they are fine without a car seat.” Incorrect

o Unless your child has outgrown the limits of all seats on the market, how old they are is how old their bones are. Cars are made and tested for adults with fully formed bones. Car seats provide modifications to the safety features of a car to ensure smaller, still developing bodies are still safe. Car seats are to be used appropriately, and a child will probably be in a car seat until they are 10-12 years old.

  • “The center seat of the car is the safest place to install my car seat.” Incorrect

o This can be a loaded statement as some people have more than one child and it makes them feel as if they are choosing one child’s safety over another by not being able to install their car seat in the middle seat. It is not incorrect that statistically the center of a car is the furthest point of impact from any side of the car. However, safety comes down to more than just statistical impacts, and cars are made differently than they used to with crumple zones and side-impact testing making cars far safer than in the past.

o The safest place for a car seat is where it can be installed correctly. Many cars have humped middle seats which make for a slanted car seat or difficulty getting the installation tight enough, this would make it an unsafe choice for the car seat. Also, many cars do not have dedicated center latches and latch borrowing is unsafe, so using latches in the center seating position is not an option in most cars either.

  • “We were in a car accident but the seat looks fine so it is still safe to use.” Incorrect

o Every car seat has different replacement requirements, refer to your manual to discover what yours are.

o The inside of the car seat could have damage or there could be unseen fissures in the plastic rendering the seat unsafe.

o Remember cars weigh thousands of pounds and even if the accident was going at low speeds, the force of the crash is significant. Car seat companies test their seats under different crash scenarios to discover what warrants replacement, so you aren’t doing that testing for them.

Car seats have a lot of requirements and quirks, but all the information for a safe installation is available to you in the manual. You can also look up a car seat check with a CPST in your area, or if they schedule appointments make one with them.


Other Car Seat Safety Resources:

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