Does chauffeuring your child feel like a part-time job? It basically is, a recent survey says: 90 percent of parents and guardians report spending up to 20 hours per week in their car with kids. Keep that family time safe with these tips on car seat and driving safety.
Choosing a Car Seat
Car safety for babies and kids begins at birth—literally. Most hospitals and birthing centers won’t let parents leave for home unless they show they have a properly functioning and installed car seat.
Trying to choose the right model for your child? Check out our Definitive Guide to Buying a Car Seat and the 2023 Safety Seat Ease of Use Ratings by the National Highway and Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA). Also, take a peek at which models have been recalled recently.
Babies from Birth to 1 Year
The NHTSA gives the following guidelines for choosing car seats:
CHILD’S WEIGHT: Up to 35 pounds
TYPE OF SEAT: Infant-only or rear-facing convertible
DIRECTION TO FACE: At minimum, infants should ride rear-facing to at least 1 year of age AND at least 20 pounds. The seat should be at a 30-45 degree angle to keep the child’s head from falling forward. Do not tip it too far back or the child could come out of the seat in a crash.
NOTE: For maximum safety, experts recommend that infants and toddlers ride rear-facing for as long as possible—up to age 2. Toddlers, and infants who outgrow the height and weight restrictions of an infant-only seat, can ride rear-facing in a convertible car seat, which have higher rear-facing weight limits (over 22 pounds).
Kids from 1 to 4 Years Old
CHILD’S WEIGHT: 20 to 40 pounds
TYPE OF SEAT: Convertible or forward-facing only seat
DIRECTION TO FACE: A child over age 1 AND over 20 pounds may ride facing forward. However, experts recommend keeping children rear-facing for as long as possible. If you choose to install the seat facing forward, use the upright position or the position recommended by the manufacturer.
NOTE: Keep the child in a child safety seat with a full harness as long as possible, preferably until age 4. For children 40 pounds or more who are too young or too active to sit still in a booster seat, or if a vehicle has only lap belts, look for child restraints with harnesses labeled for use over 40 pounds.
Children 4 to 8 Years Old
CHILD’S WEIGHT: Over 40 pounds
TYPE OF SEAT: Belt-positioning booster seat, backless, or high-back
DIRECTION TO FACE: Forward-facing
NOTE: All children who have outgrown child safety seats should be properly restrained in booster seats until they are at least 8 years old, unless they are 4′ 9″ tall.
Read about the changing rules of booster seat safety in WFA Mom’s Boost Safety for Kids in the Car.
Register for Safety’s Sake
New child safety seats and booster seats come with registration cards. Be sure to register your new seat so you will be notified if there is a recall. If you don’t have a card, call the safety seat manufacturer.
Getting Started on Car Seat Installation
Like many contraptions parents need to assemble for their children, car seats can be bewildering (and frustrating!) to install. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), parents must consider two main points when installing car seats:
- The seat must be buckled tightly into your vehicle.
- Your child must be buckled snugly into the seat.
Installation Questions to Consider
The following are questions the AAP says parents should ask themselves as they’re installing a car seat:
- Is the car safety seat facing the right direction for your child’s age and size?
- Is the seat belt routed through the correct belt path?
- If you are using the LATCH system (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children—an attachment system that eliminates the need to use seat belts to secure the car safety seat), have you attached the straps to the correct anchor points in the vehicle?
- Are the LATCH straps or seat belt buckled tightly? If you can move the seat more than an inch side to side or front to back, it’s not tight enough.
More Installation Questions
- Is your rear-facing seat reclined enough? Your infant’s head should not flop forward. If it does, tilt the car safety seat back a little. Your car safety seat may have a built-in recline adjuster for this purpose. If not, wedge firm padding, such as a rolled towel, under the base.
- Do you need a locking clip? They come with all new car safety seats, and some are even built into the seat. If the seat belts in your car move freely even when buckled and there is no way to lock them, you need a locking clip. If you’re not sure, check the manual that came with your car. Locking clips are not needed in most newer vehicles and in vehicles with LATCH.
- Some lap belts (especially those found in older vehicles) need a special heavy-duty locking clip. These are only available from the vehicle manufacturer. Check the manual that came with your car for more information or visit a car safety seat inspection station.
Inspecting Car Seats
Not sure you’ve installed the car seat correctly? Many car dealerships have on-staff technicians who have passed a 32-hour class offered by the NHTSA on proper car seat installation.
If yours doesn’t, click here or call 1-866-SEAT-CHECK to find a fitting station near you.
And check out the video clip at left to see how parents, safety organizations, and car dealerships are addressing the growing concerns of proper car seat installation.
Driving Safely with Kids
Of course you know that whether you’re driving across the street or cross-country, your child must be secured in an age-appropriate car seat or booster seat. (No exceptions!) But also bear in mind these tips as you’re chauffeuring your family:
- Keep all items in the car—from library books to coolers—restrained. Stopping short could cause them to propel and hit passengers (or you, the driver).
- Never feed children in a car. We may be an on-the-go society, but unexpected jerking car movements can cause kids to choke on food. That melted ice cream bar at left is definitely a hazard!
- Watch the windows: Use the window lock-out switch to keep kids from playing with up-down toggle switches, which can accidently trap a child’s head or limbs.
- Never leave your child or your keys in the car. Kids left inside can put cars into gear, causing the vehicle to roll away. Children with car keys can enter a trunk either from the outside or, in some cars, through rear seats, finding themselves trapped inside.