10 Car Seat Safety Mistakes Parents Make

July 2, 2015

Car seat safety can be tricky, but you can help protect your little one by avoiding these common mistakes.

Every state in the USA has laws requiring some form of restraint for your child when traveling in a car. Restraints and car seats keep your little one safe and comfortable when making a trip, whether it's cross country or across town. But between installation requirements, different state laws and air bags, car seat safety can be tricky. Here are 10 mistakes many parents make, and how to fix them.

  1. Tossing Aside the User Manual
    "When parents take the car seat out of the box, they toss the manual aside, thinking 'How difficult could this be?'" says Diono's Allana Pinkerton, a certified child passenger safety instructor for over 12 years. "It's important to sit down, grab a cup of coffee, take your time, read the warnings and use the directions to install the car seat."
  2. Installing the Seat Too Loosely
    The car seat should stay secure. When Pinkerton does car checks, she sometimes finds that "the seat belt is not locked or the car seat isn't tight enough." Car seats should move less than one inch side-to-side and front-to-back.
  3. Using A Harness That's Not Positioned in the Right Place
    A rear-facing seat's harness (straps) should be set slightly below the child's shoulders. A forward-facing car seat's harness should be set slightly above the child's shoulders. To change the positioning of the straps in the seat, simply pick the correct harness slot on the car seat.
  4. Using A Harness That's Too Loose
    A too-loose harness doesn't provide adequate protection in case of a crash. Amie Durocher, the creative director at Safe Ride 4 Kids and a certified child passenger safety technician since 2004, has a cute way to help remind you: "Keep the harness snug as a hug." The pinch test tells you if you have it right: if you can grab some of the harness along the length, it's too loose.
  5. Positioning the Chest Clip at the Wrong Level
    Chest clips, which attach the straps together, need to be at armpit level, explains Pinkerton. If they're placed too high or too low, the child could sustain injuries in a car crash.
  6. Adding Heavy Coats Inside the Harness
    When it's cold outside, you naturally bundle up your child. But wait to put on the heavy coat for when you exit the car. "Use no more than a sweater or sweatshirt inside the harness system," Durocher says. The extra padding of bulky outerwear compresses in a crash, making the harness straps too loose. If your child is cold, keep a cozy blanket in the car or drape her coat over her once she's buckled in.
  7. Using LATCH with a Seat Belt
    Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) has been a feature in cars since September 2002. Many car seats come with built-in straps with hooks that attach to the anchors built into the backseat of the car. Many parents use the lower anchor strap and the seat belt, thinking this makes the car seat extra safe, but Durocher explains that, "If you double the webbing, you have changed the way the crash energy is dissipated. It is now outside the design and crash testing specifications." Use one or the other, not both.
  8. Only Looking at State Laws
    "Every state has car seat laws, but none are best practice recommendations," says Pinkerton. If you're following best practices from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which are more rigorous than state laws, you'll be well within your state's regulations.
  9. Placing a Child in Front of an Air Bag
    You should never place a young child in a rear-facing car seat in a seat with an air bag. The impact of the inflating air bag can cause severe injuries to a child's head and neck. "This is a big no-no," says Pinkerton. If you must put a child in a front-facing car seat in front of an air bag, a child in a five-point harness is safer there than a child in a booster seat would be. In addition, turn off the passenger air bag if you have a switch, or get an on/off switch installed if you don't have one already.
  10. Moving to the Next Stage Too Quickly
    "Parents need to slow down when considering a move to the next-stage car seat," says Jennifer Geiger, an editor and car seat safety expert with Cars.com. Don't fall into the trap of moving the child too soon. To help you, the NHTSA put out a guide that helps parents know which type of car seat their child needs at each growth development stage.

Car seat safety is important to get right. If you ever have any questions about your car seat, call the manufacturer. Pinkerton says you should be able to talk with one of the experts there to get help. You can also call your local police or fire station to see if someone there can check your car seat installation. You can also find a car seat safety inspector by using the locator on Parents Central on the NHTSA site.

For more on car seat safety, check out these Car Seat Guidelines.

Laura Agadoni is a parenting writer and mom whose articles appear in various publications, including Modern Mom, The Penny Hoarder, Tom's of Maine, Global Post and Livestrong.

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