Understanding car safety, and properly installing car seats, can help you avoid injuries sand save lives
Did you know that road injuries are the leading cause of preventable deaths and injuries to children in the U.S.?
When used correctly, child safety seats can reduce the risk of death by as much as 71 percent, but three out of four car seats are not used or installed properly.
Corri Miller-Hobbs, program coordinator for Safe Kids Virginia at CHoR, answered our top questions about car seats – the different types, how to choose and how to keep kids of all ages safe while riding in the car in recognition of National Child Passenger Safety Week.
What are the different types of car seats and difference between them?
There are three main types of car seats.
- Rear-facing: This is your baby’s first car seat, often used from five to 40 pounds. Virginia law requires that children remain rear-facing until the age of 2, or they reach the minimum weight for a forward-facing car seat as stated by the manufacturer.
- Rear-facing only seat: Parents and caregivers often buy this type of seat because it’s portable. Most, but not all, can be used in strollers that are sold with the seat or those recommended by the manufacturer. Caregivers can often purchase extra bases so it can be used in several cars.
- Convertible car seat: This seat is larger and stays in the car. It can be used rear-facing until your child is at least 2 years old. After that, it can change to forward-facing.
- 3-in-1 car seat: This seat also stays in the car. Parents can use it rear-facing, forward-facing, and then later, as a booster seat
- Forward-facing: After age 2 and when a child outgrows a rear-facing car seat by weight or length, they can be moved to a forward facing car seat with a harness and with the top tether utilized, which is essential.
- Convertible car seat: This type of seat can be used in rear-facing position first, then turned to face forward when your child has reached the weight or height requirement after age 2. If you have one of these seats, you do not need to buy a new car seat until your child is ready for a belt positioning booster seat.
- Forward-facing-only car seat: This type of seat is used only in one direction and has a five-point harness and top tether.
- Combination seat: This is a forward-facing seat with a five-point harness and top tether, and can change into a booster seat when the harness is removed.
- 3-in-1 car seat: This can be used first in a rear-facing position, next in a forward-facing position and finally as a booster seat. Parents and caregivers should carefully read the labels when deciding to use a combination or 3-in-1 car seat. The labels will tell you when to remove the harness and switch to a booster seat.
- Booster seat: Once a child has outgrown the forward-facing seat with a harness, they are ready for a booster seat. A booster seat raises the child so the car’s adult lap and shoulder seat belt fits over them correctly.
How do I know which car seat to use? Is there one that is safer than others?
Before making a purchase, parents should read the label, or if buying online, read the product description and specifications of the seat. Look for the weight, height and age limits to be sure the seat is right for your child.
Even though there are many different models and brands to choose from, all car seats meet the same U.S. federal safety standards. Inexpensive seats will meet the same standards as more expensive seats, but may not have all of the comfort features, such as padding for the harness straps. If you prefer more features, be sure to buy a car seat that has them provided. Adding things later (called aftermarket products) can make your child less safe.
How long can I use a specific car seat?
Every car seat has an expiration date. The expiration date can be found on the label or imprinted on the plastic. Most seats expire after six years, but each seat is different.
When throwing away an expired or unsafe car seat, take it apart and put the pieces in separate trash bags to prevent someone else from using an unsafe seat.
Should I buy a used car seat if it isn’t expired?
Never buy a used car seat from garage sales, flea markets, second-hand stores or online if you do not know the previous owner or the complete history of the seat and avoid borrowing one from someone you don’t know. A used car seat is unsafe if it has been in a crash or if it is missing parts, labels or instructions. A seat is also unsafe if the manufacturer has issued a safety recall and it has not been fixed. There is just no way to be sure that a used car seat is safe.
How do I know if my child is in the car seat correctly and/or if it is the right fit?
Follow these four steps:
- Place the child in the seat. The baby’s back and bottom should be flat against the seat. Do not place anything behind or underneath the child, such as a blanket or pillow.
- Check the harness straps. Make sure that the harness straps come through the seat’s slots at or just below the baby’s shoulders for rear-facing seats. For a forward-facing seat, the straps should be at or just above the child’s shoulders.
- Buckle and tighten the harness so it is snug. Do the pinch test to make sure you cannot pinch the harness strap at your baby’s shoulders. The harness will need to be loosened and tightened each time you place your child in the seat to ensure a snug fit.
- Position the chest clip. It needs to be level with your baby’s armpits.
Read more tips on getting the right fit for your child.
How do I know when my child is ready for the next car seat?
There’s no hurry. The safest car seat for children under the age of 2 is a rear-facing one. Riding in a rear-facing seat helps protect your child’s head, neck and spine in a crash. Children grow immensely in the first two years, so parents and caregivers may have to move their child from a smaller rear-facing-only seat to a bigger convertible or 3-in-1 seat installed in the rear-facing position.
Always check the label on car seats. Children will be ready for a larger rear-facing car seat when they pass the weight or height limit on the seat label or when their head is within one inch of the top of the seat. Children with longer legs can still stay in the rear-facing position comfortably by crossing their legs. All children, even those with special health care needs, follow the same rules for staying safe in a car.
Is there someone who can confirm that I have installed the seat correctly?
Child passenger safety technicians do conduct safety seat checks and teach parents/guardians how to install seats correctly. During COVID, however, many of the seat-check stations are closed or limited. Safe Kids Worldwide and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offer great online tools and tips to help you ensure the right fit and installation for your child.
What if I am not able to afford the proper safety seat for my child?
The Virginia Department of Health has a low income safety seat program that offers free child safety seats and booster seats for income-eligible children in the state. We want to make sure that every child can ride safely in vehicles!
Learn more about Virginia laws on child safety seats.