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Car seats: How long your child needs one and more car safety guidelines

Wendy Wisner
March 22, 2019
Car seats: How long your child needs one and more car safety guidelines

Motor vehicle injuries are the leading cause of death among kids in the U.S., according to the CDC. While this is an alarming fact, the good news is that child restraints can reduce injuries and fatalities by more than 70 percent, says the Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP).

So what type of car seat should you use, and for how long? Unfortunately there’s no single answer: Car seat laws vary by state and often change. The best thing to do is to start by checking the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, which keeps an up-to-date list of state laws.

There are also general guidelines you should follow. Read on!

What do state car seat laws require?

“All states have laws requiring children use proper child restraints in vehicles,” says Amie Durocher, a certified child passenger safety technician who runs the popular website Safe Ride 4 Kids.

Some states have detailed requirements, such as age/height/weight restrictions and type of car seat that must be used, says Durocher. Other states, however, have more general regulations in place.

“For example, in Florida, children are only required to use a child restraint until age 5, whereas most other states go up to age 8,” says Durocher.

What if you don’t follow car seat laws?

“If a parent or driver is caught driving a child under the required age or height for a child seat, they can be issued a traffic citation by police,” says Randolph Rice, a criminal defense and traffic ticket attorney from Baltimore, Maryland. “These violations are generally misdemeanor citations and carry the potential for fines and points.”

Fines can be as high as $500 a violation, says Rice.

Some states also add points to your license for not following car seat laws.

“In New York, if a driver is convicted of a violation where a child safety seat is not restrained by a child car seat, three points are assigned to the driver's record,” says Rice. “Drivers that accumulate too many points could face a suspension or revocation of their driver’s license.”

Car seat smarts

Because car seat laws can be misunderstood and aren’t universal, experts recommend you follow the car seat guidelines set forth by the AAP in conjunction with your own state’s car seat laws.

Here are the current AAP recommendations.

What are the different kinds of car seats and when do I use them?

Child restraints are designed for different stages of your child’s development, based on weight and height.

Rear-facing only seats

Often referred to as “infant car seats,” rear-facing only seats are generally used for infants up to 35 pounds, depending on the manufacturer’s guidelines. They are small seats with carrying handles, and most models can be detached from their base and carried easily outside of the car. The AAP warns that detachable infant car seats should only be used for travel and not sleeping or feeding outside your vehicle.

The AAP recommends that all newborns leave the hospital in a rear-facing car seat. The car seat should be brought to the hospital, properly installed and ready to go. If you have any questions about installation, the AAP recommends taking your car seat to a CPST (child passenger safety technician) for an inspection. In most cases, you can get your seat inspected free of charge. For more information, visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and search for a CPST near you.

Convertible car seats

These seats can be used rear-facing and then forward-facing as your child outgrows the height/weight limit for rear-facing. Although they can be used for newborns in most cases, they are larger and heavier than infant seats and can’t be detached and carried outside of the car. They have higher height/weight limits for rear-facing use than infant car seats and are a great choice for a rear-facing toddler.

3-in-1 car seats

These seats have it all: They can be used rear-facing, forward-facing or even as a booster seat down the line. Like convertible car seats, they can’t be carried around and are bulkier than rear-facing-only infant seats.

Booster seats

Older children who have outgrown their forward-facing car seat can use a booster seat. Booster seats are secured in place by a lap belt and do not come with a five-point harness. The child is secured into the car similarly to how adult riders are, using a lap belt. The booster lifts the child up so that the lap belt is properly positioned across their shoulder, chest and lap.

How long does a child need a car seat?

Most children do not fit properly in the car without a booster until they are 10 or 11 years old, or about 4 feet 9 inches, says the AAP. However, says Durocher, even more important than age and height are whether your child can pass the “The 5-Step Seat Belt Fit Test,” which requires the following:

  • The shoulder belt must cross between the neck and shoulder.

  • The child’s lower back must rest against the seat.

  • The lap belt must rest on the thighs.

  • The knees must bend at the seat.

  • The child must remain in this position throughout the entire car ride.

How long should the car seat be rear-facing?

In 2018, the AAP changed their guidelines about how long a child should stay rear-facing, recommending that children stay in a rear-facing seat “as long as possible, until they reach the height weight or height allowed by their seat.” The AAP’s previous stance was that children remain rear-facing until age 2. The new recommendations advise parents to follow the car seat manufacturer’s instructions, which usually allow children to remain rear-facing to 40 pounds or more, which is generally after their 2nd birthday.

When can a kid sit use a booster seat?

“Most booster seats are now rated for children starting at 4 years old and 40 pounds,” says Durocher.

But while children can begin using a booster seat then, Durocher says that most car seat experts advise staying in a five-point harness seat longer. The AAP concurs, saying that once a child has outgrown their rear-facing seat, they should use a forward-facing seat “as long as possible, up to the highest weight or height allowed by their car seat manufacturer.”

Surprisingly, there are no state laws pertaining to booster seats, Durocher says, and most states don’t require children to sit in the back seat of the car until a certain age. Delaware is an exception. That state has a law requiring children to sit in the back seat until they are 13, which is much safer, says Durocher.

How do you find the right car seat?

The best car seat for your child, explains the AAP, is one that “fits your child's size, is correctly installed, fits well in your vehicle and is used properly every time you drive.”

You should not judge the car seat by price alone, and you should never use a car seat that has been damaged, is missing manufacturer’s label or has an expired manufacturer’s date. You should periodically check to see if your seat has been recalled, and you should never use a seat that has been in a car crash.

Read next: Carpool etiquette tips for parents

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