5 Most Common Mistakes Made with Car Seat Safety

Hey Tribe! On The Village Blog I love connecting with professionals in the community to share their knowledge regarding all things health and family related. This week we have Ashley Wilson, Child Passenger Safety Technician certified through Safe Kids Worldwide, sharing about the top 5 mistakes made with child seat safety and her Child Passenger Safety Workshop Saturday November 12 from 12-1p! Enjoy!

As a parent I know how stressful making decisions like choosing a car seat for little ones can be. As a Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST) I help parents make decisions and implement them appropriately. The National Highway & Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that AT LEAST 75% of car seats include one error in use or installation, so let's look at some of the most common issues caregivers make:

1. Incorrect Installation

With very few exceptions, harnessed car seats should be installed with EITHER the seat belt or with LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children)--not both. Neither is safer than the other as long as you are able to get a good install with less than one inch of movement side to side or front to back at the correct belt path (where the seat belt or lower anchor belt goes through on the car seat; also note convertible seats have two different belt paths for rear & forward facing). Movement on other parts of the car seat is normal, and in some cases necessary.

The lower anchors do have weight limits (read your car seat and vehicle manual to find out what they are), so it's important to be familiar with both types of installs.

It's also important to note that you should ALWAYS use the top tether for your car seat when using the seat forward facing to protect the neck, spine, and head in a crash. Check your vehicle's manual for the locations of the tether so you know what seating positions work for your forward facing harnessed child.

Although statically the rear center is the safest seating position in the car, you'll often find in your car seat manual and/or your vehicle manual that only a seat belt can be used to install your child's seat in that position. Vehicles made since 1996 are required to have locking seat belts so read your vehicle manual to find out how your seat belts lock (if you have a pre-1996 model, see a CPST for assistance).

Even though the center is the safest position, the outboard seats are not unsafe. A good installation trumps seating position.

2. Incorrect Harnessing

In a rear facing car seat the harness straps should begin at or below the child's shoulders. In a forward facing seat, the harness should come from at or above a child's shoulders. The harness should be snug so that when you pinch the harness webbing at their collarbone you shouldn't be able to pinch webbing between your fingers (note: putting 1 or 2 fingers under the webbing is outdated).

Always be sure to buckle each buckle on the harness to keep the child secure in their seat and make sure there are no twists in the harness. The crotch buckle location for your child's size and orientation will be found in the car seat manual. The chest clip should always be in the center of the sternum, which changes as children age (so for a newborn that may be at their nipples, while for an older child it may be closer to their armpits).

3. The Wrong Seat

This is a difficult subject because children come in a range of sizes and car seats come in a range of prices, but the best answer is: choose a car seat that fits your child, fits your vehicle, and fits your budget. It's additionally difficult because you typically only find weight limits listed on the box in store, but car seats come in varying heights. Many seats have "over inflated limits" because the car seat may be rated to rear face to 40lbs, but won't allow a kid to reach that limit because the harness and shell heights of the seat are very short. Contacting a CPST can help guide you to the best seats for your child's height AND weight (often retail employees give incorrect information when helping to choose a car seat, so buyer beware!). 

Children are 532% rear facing under the age of two, but that number doesn't magically drop to zero once they pass 24 months in age. Nearly all children will need another rear facing seat after they outgrow the rear facing only car seat (commonly called "infant" or "bucket" seats) most people start with. Best practice is to rear face them to the height or weight limit of a convertible car seat (which rear and forward faces). The minimum age to safely forward face child is two, but each step up in the phases of car seat usage is a step down in safety. By using your car seat's maximum limits for rear facing and forward facing, you are ensuring you'll get the most for your money out of your car seat while keeping your child safe. 

4. Incorrect Booster Use

Many parents introduce boosters too early for convenience, cost, or just because they think their little one is a "big boy," or "big girl" and is ready for the next step. Remember: a seat belt is federally mandated to secure adults from 4'11"/96lbs to 6'8"/215lbs, so don't rush your little one to this step before the time is right! 

Despite the ages, and size ranges on the box, children aren't ready for boosters until they are mature enough to sit correctly 100% of the time (no slumping with sleep and no bending down or over to reach something/someone), which usually isn't until 5.5 or close to 6 years old (though for some children it could be closer to 7). They also need to make sure the shoulder belt sits firmly between their shoulder and neck and the lap belt sits on their lower hips and upper thighs --not across the belly. 

There is also an issue of dumping the booster WAY before a child's body is ready to use the seat belt without it (many go by legal minimums, which we know are not safe guidelines). In order to sit without a booster a child needs to meet 5 criteria: (1) they sit all the way back against the vehicle seat back, (2) their knees bend over the seat comfortably, preferably their feet also reach the floor, (3) the shoulder belt sits firmly between the shoulder and collarbone, against their chest, (4) the lap belt sits low on the hips and upper thigh and does not ride up on their belly and soft tissue, and (5) they're mature enough to sit correctly the entire time. Even tall children won't meet this criteria until they are usually between 10 and 12 years old. It's also important to note that kids (until at least age 13) should always ride in the rear seats as the front passenger airbag is designed to exert much more force than a child's body can with stand. 

5. Not Following the Manual

The number one rule in car seating is READ THE MANUAL! It's so important to familiarize yourself with the car seat's manual, as well as your vehicle's manual. Some things that parents disregard when using their child restraints that can be found in the manual include: washing instructions and care, crash replacement criteria, and expiration dates. Each of these are different for all car seats, even though there are lots of myths and misconceptions about each of them. Consult with your manual or call the manufacturer to be sure you're following the instructions. 

Some other commonly disregarded items in the manual include adding anything to the car seat that wasn't sold with or for that model (including cute car seat covers, harness covers, head restraints, and cushions... all of which can change how the car seat works), allowing children to wear bulky coats or costumes in their seat (which could compress in a crash and cause ejection or injuries) and putting rear facing only seats in grocery cart seats (which can damage the mechanism that allows the seat to "click" into its base). Manufacturer engineers have noted in conferences and discussions with Child Passenger Safety professionals that many of these after market uses do make a difference in crash dynamics when they have done testing, so the manual's instructions are not just suggestions.

Although the list of rules and instructions that come with car seats can be daunting, meeting with a professional will put your mind at ease.

Join us Saturday November 12 from 12-1pm at Village Family Chiropractic for a Car Seat Safety class for the entire family! Only $15 if you register before the class or $20 at the door. Register to drkimsnider@gmail.com!