D. Gilson is a writer and author of essays, poetry, and scholarship that explore the relationship between popular culture, literature, sexuality, and memoir. His latest book is Jesus Freak, with Will Stockton, part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 Series. His other books include I Will Say This Exactly One Time and Crush. His first chapbook, Catch & Release, won the 2012 Robin Becker Prize from Seve...

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Reviewed by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer

UPDATED: Jul 19, 2021

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Motor vehicle accidents are one of the leading causes of death among children, and recent research into child safety revealed that the old recommendations for car seats were insufficient. In severe cases, some experts say car seats do absolutely nothing to protect children. Of course, one would assume this is when car seats are not secured or otherwise used properly. The new guidelines, recently published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), could just help save your child’s life.

How Do You Properly Secure The Seat and The Child?

According to a recent survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 20% of parents install child car seats and booster seats without consulting the instructions. This often results in improperly placed seat belts and harness straps and insufficiently secured seats – both of which increase the likelihood of injury or death.

Newer car seats and vehicles generally come equipped with a LATCH system that attaches the seat to factory-installed anchors in the ceiling and seat of the vehicle. Older vehicles may have to use the seat belt to secure the child seat, and may require a locking clip. In all cases, the owner’s manual should be consulted.

Many parents know young infants need to right in a rear-facing car seat. Depending on who you talk to, you might’ve heard they should ride directly behind you or in the middle seat. A child safety seat is only fully protective if you follow current guidelines.

Children under 13 years should ride in the back seat. Front passenger airbags can cause significant injury to children, and they can be deadly when deployed against the back of a rear-facing child seat. Airbags will even prove dangerous in low velocity collisions.

Side air bags are also designed to protect bigger adults bodies, so child seats should be installed in the middle of the back seat unless the car seat. If the seat cannot be tightly secured, avoid the middle. A firmly secured side position may be preferable in such a situation. Certified car seat inspectors may be available to assist with proper installation.

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How to Choose a Car Seat

Parents are cautioned against using seats that are damaged or missing pieces or instructions. Seats that have been recalled should not be used, and those in moderate or serious accidents should be discarded. AAP provides an extensive list of available car and booster seats.

How Are Child Car Seats Divided Into Categories by Age and Size?

  • Under Two Years: Children under two years of age who have not exceeded the manufacturer’s weight or height limit (up to 45 pounds) should ride in rear-facing seats. This is a significant change from the old guidelines that allowed children to ride forward facing at one year and 20 pounds. Parents who are tempted to turn their children around early should know that children in this age group are 75% less likely to die or suffer from a serious injury when they are rear-facing in a crash.The harness of a rear-facing seat should be placed in slots that are at or below the child’s shoulders, and the clip should be at mid-chest level. A rear-facing seat should never be placed in the front seat of a vehicle with an air bag. Care should be taken to ensure the infant’s head does not fall forward.
  • Through Kindergarten: AAP recommends that children remain in a five-point harness car seat at least through four years. Since many harnessed car seats can safely hold children up to 65 pounds, most children through kindergarten age can ride in them. Unlike rear-facing seats, the straps on the harness of front-facing seats should go through slots that are at or above the child’s shoulders. Tethers that run from the top back of the seat to an anchor in the rear are highly recommended, as they help prevent the child’s head from flying forward in an accident.
  • Elementary School: Once a child exceeds the height or weight limits for the forward-facing seat, her shoulders are above the top harness slot, or her ears are at the top of the seat, she is ready for a belt-positioning booster seat. Elementary school children should be placed in a belt-positioning booster seat until at least 4’9” and eight years of age, preferably through 12 years as long as they fit.
  • Older Children: Children who are large enough to safely use an adult seat belt may ride without a booster seat. The adult lap belt should ride low and snug across the upper thighs, and the shoulder strap should fit across the chest – not cut into the neck. Do not let your children slip the shoulder strap behind them. Children under 13 years should continue to ride in the rear of the vehicle. When choosing a car seat, remember that a pricy seat is not necessarily a safer seat. In fact, all car seats sold in the United States meet minimum safety regulations. The best car seat for your child is one that can be snuggly and properly installed in the vehicle and one that is comfortable enough that it is used every time. Child passenger safety is a matter of law.

Can You Get a Forward-Facing Seat for Infants or Children?

There are four types of car safety restraints that can be used as forward-facing car seats.

  • Convertible seats: These seats can convert from rear-facing seats to forward-facing seats.
  • Combination seats with a harness: These seats can be used forward-facing with a harness for children who weigh up to 40-65 pounds or without the harness as a booster.
  • Integrated seats: These built-in forward-facing seats are used when a child has reached the highest weight and height allowed.
  • Travel vests: They can be worn by children 22 to 168 pounds and are useful for children with special needs or those whose weight has exceeded.

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Where Can You Find The Right Car Seat?

Every car seat comes with an expiration date, in part because technology is always advancing. We are constantly learning more about the best ways to have infants and children ride in cars. We’ve gone from a regular shoulder belt to rear-facing seats with extensive instructions for use.

If you’re shopping for a car seat, make sure the one you’re buying is up-to-date. You can check online reviews, and always read the instructions carefully to make sure you’re using it correctly.