Driving around in cars is freaking dangerous. It just is. I’ve lost my fair share of friends and classmates in car accidents, so I’m probably a little more paranoid than the average bear.
On the topic of kids in cars? I’m a bit of a nervous Nelly, especially when it comes to other people driving my kid(s) around [shivers]. I’m sure this is something I will have to get over as they get older.
I decided to become a certified CPST (child passenger safety technician) so I could speak more competently about car seat safety.
Essentially, what I learned is… it’s not surprising that most car seats are installed incorrectly; it’s confusing stuff! There are just so many variables. Confession: The majority of the students in this class? Most of us had our car seats in wrong too… or we had screwed up some other critical aspect of the installation.
Oopsie doops. Tee hee.
On the last day of the class, we did a public car seat check at the local Walmart and believe-you-me, sister, we saw some f’d up s#it (yes, I felt it necessary to use two 4-letter words there). We saw a baby in the front seat, we saw 2-year-olds in boosters, we saw some really old, expired seats à la 1985. You name it.
There are some really interesting and useful tidbits that I want to share with every parent who has a kid in a car seat in hopes of clearing up some of the major misconceptions and points of confusion. Here goes…
The 5-pt Harness is your Friend
Most people put their child into a seatbelt (and out of the 5-pt harness) WAY too early.
That said, most kids are mature enough by the age of 5 or 6 to graduate to a booster/seatbelt, thus you may want a higher weight limit harnesses seat to get you to that age (you know your child’s heft the best). Read also: what’s the right age for a booster seat?
Rear-facing seats are soooooooooooo much safer than forward-facing seats. Generally speaking… children have fragile, flexible neck muscles. When a forward-facing child’s heavy head is thrust forward in a crash, the child suffers an enormous amount of stress on the neck. If the spinal cord stretches too far in a crash (a mere 6 mm), the child may suffer paralysis or death.
In the real world, I’ve noticed that most parents turn(ed) their kid around shortly after his/her 1st birthday. Trust me, I understand the desire to hand food or a sippy cup back to your kid in order to quiet her down, but watch this video and you’ll understand the huge difference in the crash dynamics of the two positions (cue to 1:35). In fact, a child is 75% more likely to sustain a serious injury if he is forward-facing.
Essentially, a seat that is rear-facing inherently cradles a child’s brain and neck. Try to wait until your young’un is at least 2-years-old before turning them around — or even longer if you can stand it!
“As a medical community, we are really, really good at fixing bones; we can fix almost any broken bone in your body. We are very bad, however, at fixing broken spinal cords and swollen brains.”
– Gina, CPST instructor and ER nurse
Frontal collisions are by far the most common type of collision, but side-impact collisions are the most deadly (people running red lights, stop signs, etc.). The good news is that many (most?) newer cars now have side and/or “curtain” air bags (and since 2013, they all should have them).
The bad news is that – currently — there are no standards for side-impact protection for car seats in America (Europe? Yes, here? No), but MANY car seat manufacturers have taken this upon themselves. In my opinion, side-impact protection is what separates a good seat from a great seat. Yes, you’ll probably pay more, but it’s worth it.
Skip to: Best Convertible Car Seats
You can, if absolutely necessary, put a FORWARD-FACING child seat in the front seat if it’s the last resort (with the seat pushed back as far as possible). A rear-facing car seat, however, should NEVER go in the front seat unless you’re absolutely sure you can disable the air bags. Why? Here’s the scenario: You get into a minor fender-bender and suddenly, your frontal air bags get deployed at 200 mph. The rear-facing baby then gets catapulted into the seat and is instantly killed. If you don’t believe me, I’ll tell you some terrible stories from the ER nurses at my CPST training class. Really sad stuff.
Rear-facing in the front seat: no
Using LATCH in the middle seat
All things being equal, the back seat, center position is the safest place to install a car seat. However, vehicles are only required by law to have two LATCH positions — and in 70% of vehicles, these two positions are in the “outboard” or side seats (i.e., not in the middle). You will often only find center LATCH connectors in large, wide cars and trucks. Given the choice, I’d rather do a seat belt installation in the center even if it’s a little more tedious than using LATCH.
— As a follow-up, if your car doesn’t have LATCH hooks in the middle seat (and most don’t), you should not use the “inner” right and left LATCH hooks (i.e., the ones intended for the outboard seats) to install a seat in the middle (make sense?). There are vehicles where you CAN do this, but only if both the car maker AND the car seat manufacturer okay it. Read more here: ** This is a very common mistake that parents make.
Seat Belt Shenanigans
ELR vs. ALR seat belts, whaaaat?
A bunch of confusing acronyms do exactly that: they confuse people. Most people are confused about when to use the locking clip (the “H” shaped clip that comes with your seat).
If your car was made after 1996, you probably do NOT need to use a locking clip. Long story short, cars after 1996 are required to have back seat seat belts that have two modes: ELR mode (let’s call this “adult comfort” mode, you can move around freely, etc.) and ALR mode (let’s call this “car seat installation” or “locked” mode). Thus, most lap-shoulder belt systems have “switchable” retractors, which means if you pull the belt allllll the way out, then let it slowly feed back in, you have switched it from “adult” mode to “child seat” mode, and thus, you do not need to use the locking clip because you are “pre-crash” locking it. Dig? (Just nod.)
However, EACH time you install the seat with the seat belt, you MUST switch the belt into ALR mode (a.k.a. child seat mode) by pulling the belt all the way out and letting it retract snugly in order to engage the locking mechanism. It’s easy to forget! That’s another big mistake that people make.
FAQ: “Which is safer: LATCH or the seat belt?” There truly is no difference. They are equally safe. If LATCH is easier for you to use correctly, use it. If the seat belt is easier for you, use that. Point: Use the one you have less of a chance of screwing up. P.S. Don’t use them both at the same time.
The LATCH hooks in your car are typically only rated up to 40-45 lbs (remember I talked about those seats that go up to 80 lbs?). Most people don’t know this and have 45+ lb children in car seats that are installed using LATCH. This is a major no-no (and again, how would anybody ever know this? It’s not exactly common knowledge).
Check your owner’s manual for your car’s LATCH weight limit and – yes — you’ll have to go back to using the good old-fashioned seat belt until auto makers can catch up with car seat trends and make their LATCH hooks hold more weight.
- Update: All car seats manufactured after February 2014 will have a label that clearly defines the maximum weight limit for installing that car seat with lower anchors. That maximum weight limit will equal 65 lbs when the car seat weight and the child’s weight are combined.
In the forward-facing position, the top tether (or as I think of it, the “rear” tether) is really, really important, yet most people don’t use it. This top tether secures the back of the seat, thereby reducing “head excursion,” which is how far the head and neck travel forward in a collision (see below).
If your car was made after Sept 2002, your car has LATCH (and thus, rear tether hooks), you just need to find ’em. In some cars, they are on the back of the seat, some are in the ceiling, some are on the floor behind the seat; check your owner’s manual for the location if you can’t find them. In fact, even if you are installing the seat with a seat belt, you can (and should) ALSO use the rear tether to secure the seat.
Last but not least, my biggest peeve of all: your harness straps are not tight enough, parents! 90% of you are guilty of this. You shouldn’t be able to “pinch” any slack in your harness straps.
A friend said to me the other day, “Ally is always pulling her arm out of her car seat.” OMG woman, if your kid can pull her arm out of her car seat straps, it’s waaaay too loose. Come on now! As my dad would say, “get with the program!”.
Every seat has a button that allows you to release the straps and pull them loose, typically between the legs. You then tighten the straps again by pulling the big cord between the legs. Learn how to use it (seriously).
Meg Collins, CPST<— yeeaaaah, baby — who needs an MBA when you can be a CPST?? (sarcasm)