Safety First!

7 Dangerous Car Seat Mistakes Parents Make

Study up and be safe.

by Dave Baldwin
Originally Published: 
Woman puts a seat belt on her baby boy, who is sitting in a car seat.
LukaTDB/E+/Getty Images

There is no single more important piece of child safety equipment than a car seat. In 2015, 121,000 kids under the age of 12 were injured in automobile accidents in the United States ⏤ 663 died. Motor vehicle injuries are the leading cause of death among children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And car seats can reduce that chance of death by up to 71%.

Why then, if car seats are so critical and seemingly easy to use, do so many parents consistently get something wrong with either their installation or use? One study has the error rate at around 75%, with the majority of parents making at least some mistake, albeit one as minor as not tightening the harness enough.

Part of the reason for such a high error rate involves education and misinformation. Not every parent was told to avoid putting a child wearing a winter coat into a car seat or to read the manual to identify where to position the chest clip. Admittedly, parenting can be a learn-on-the-fly kind of job.

The other factor to consider is that car seats, no matter how simple the concept, can be a royal pain. They’re not always easy to position, tweak, or tighten properly. There’s a reason that certified child passenger safety (CPS) technicians exist and why police and fire departments will check or install a car seat for you. Car seats can be frustrating.

With all that in mind, here are seven common car seat mistakes to avoid.

1. Installing the Car Seat Improperly

Car seats may seem easy to install, but they can be difficult to install correctly. A few common errors include the seat being positioned at the wrong angle (is the arrow parallel to the road?); using the wrong belt (lap or shoulder) or belt path; and not securing the seat tight enough ⏤ if it wiggles more than an inch on either side, try again.

In addition, unlike wearing both suspenders and a belt to keep up a pair of pants, using the latch and seatbelt simultaneously to secure a car seat is not the more secure decision. Just the opposite. Be sure to follow the manual for proper installation, and if there are any questions, the National Highway Transportation Safety Association (NHTSA) maintains a list of local spots where you can have a car seat checked.

2. Turning the Car Seat Around Too Soon

The American Association of Pediatrics recommends that parents keep infants and toddlers in rear-facing car seats until they’re at least 2-years-old or exceed the height and weight limits allowed by the car seat manufacturer. So does the NHTSA. So does pretty much every group that advocates for child car safety, like Kids in Danger and Safe Kids. So does science and the laws of basic physics. The only people who don’t appear to recommend this are the 40% of parents who aren’t aware of the recommendations, want to see their child’s face, or can’t be inconvenienced with having to turn a toddler around to put them into a rear-facing seat (admittedly, it can be a pain).

Legroom, by the way, doesn’t need to play a part in the decision to turn a child around either. As long as the child fits under the upper weight or height limit of the car seat, and their head is below the line, they can continue to ride rear-facing ⏤ it doesn’t matter how high up the back of seat their legs have to be propped. As some parents say, better a broken leg than a broken spine.

3. Not Fastening the Car Seat Top Tether

One of the least known safety features on a car seat, at least according to surveys, is the top tether. Generally tucked away out of sight in the back of the seat, the top tether is used to help prevent a forward-facing car seat from toppling forward during an accident. The only problem is that 64% of parents with forward-facing car seats don’t use the seat’s top tether. And of those who do, more than 50% aren’t attaching it properly, often fastening it to a cargo hook or routing it to a lower anchor.

Every car sold after 2001 has three anchor points. When that car seat finally gets turned around, it’s crucial to make sure the tether is fastened.

4. Leaving the Car Seat Shoulder Harnesses Too Loose

Leaving the shoulder harnesses too loose, or not positioning the chest clip at armpit level, tends to be done more out our care than negligence. Nobody wants to hurt their infant or listen to a toddler yell, “Too tight! Too tight!” It’s important, though, that the shoulder straps sit untangled and flush on the child’s chest and be as snug as possible without actually hurting them.

To check the tightness, use the pinch method. If there’s any slack in the shoulder harness when you pinch it with your thumb and forefinger, it needs tightening.

5. Dressing Children in Bulky Winter Coats

Another common mistake often made by parents who may not live in a cold-weather climate is putting a baby or toddler in a car seat wearing a puffy winter coat or snowsuit. It’s a bit of an optical illusion, but while the child may seem to fit snugly in the seat with the coat on, there’s actually on average an extra four inches of space between their body and the harness, thanks to the fill of the jacket. That extra space is enough to render the seat practically useless and can lead to a child flying right out of it in a crash.

Unless it’s a specially designed coat like the Buckle Me Baby Coat, always take the winter jacket off before securing the child in the seat. And if you’re unsure as to the thickness of the jacket, you can follow these instructions to test it.

6. Forgetting to Check If a Kid’s Outgrown Their Car Seat

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that your child is a growing person who has long since outpaced their car seat’s weight or height restrictions. Before you find yourself looking back at a toddler’s head towering three inches above the top of the seat, set up a reminder in your calendar. Every month, three months, six months — it’s up to you. But have a notification pop up at your chosen frequency to check the car seat’s limitations and your kid’s height and weight. While you’re at it, make sure the straps are positioned at or above the kid’s shoulders for forward facing seats (at or below for a rear-facing baby) and that the headrest is extended, if necessary.

7. Not Sending in the Car Seat’s Registration Card or Checking For Recalls

The NHTSA rigorously tracks every car seat that’s been recalled in the United States in an updated online database. You’ll never know if your seat makes the list, however, unless you check the site or send in your seat’s registration card. Do both. Many parents do not.

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