5 Golden Rules for Using Car Seats Safely

Whenever kids are in your car, they need to be in the right seat

By Winnie Yu

Running to the store? Going on a weekend trip? No matter where you're headed with your grandchildren, using seat belts and properly installed car seats is critical, says Dr. Benjamin Hoffman, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and a car-seat safety technician. Car accidents are the leading cause of death for children between the ages of 1 and 14, and most accidents occur close to home, so your golden rule should be that every child in every car be restrained on every ride, no matter how short the trip. Here are five more:

1. Match your car seat to your grandchild's age, height, and weight.

Babies and young toddlers will be safe in rear-facing infant carriers or convertible seats as long as they conform to the height and weight limits, which can be found on the seat itself, in its user manual, or on its manufacturer's website. Once your grandchildren reach the seat's weight limit or 2 years of age, they'll need to switch to a forward-facing seat with a five-point harness. Many of these seats have a 40-pound limit; some accommodate children up to 65 or even 80 pounds.

When children reach the weight and height limit for their seat, it's time to switch to a booster seat, which uses the vehicle seat belt to restrain them. While it may be tempting to skip the booster-seat stage, don't. "Seat belts are made for adults," Hoffman says. "They will cut across the neck, and the lap belt will ride onto [children's] stomachs. Boosters make sure the seat belt is in an appropriate place."

2. Make sure seats are properly installed.

Hoffman says he's checked the installation of about 4,000 seats since 1998. Of those, he says, only 13 have come in correctly installed. Nationwide, the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that as many as 70 percent of all children are improperly buckled in their car seats. "Installation is very complex," Hoffman says. "Correct installation depends on the motor vehicle manufacturer, and not every seat works well in every vehicle." The NHTSA website can help you find a car-seat inspection station near you, where a certified child-passenger safety technician can make sure that your seat is properly installed. Appointments are usually free.

3. Keep kids rear-facing as long as possible.

The AAP suggets that babies and toddlers sit in a rear-facing car seat until they're at least two years old, or until they reach the maximum weight and height of their seat. That means that a nine-month-old who weighs 20 pounds and an 18-month-old who weighs 17 pounds should both be in rear-facing seats; kids with certain convertible car seats may be able to stay rear-facing until they weigh 30-35 pounds. "Children between one and two are 500 percent more likely to be injured if they're forward-facing than if they're rear-facing," Hoffman says.

4. Go by body size, not age, when it comes to using seat belts.

Keep your grandchildren in booster seats, no matter how uncool they think it is, until the car's seat belt fits their body size. Don't go by height, Hoffman says; a child's torso and leg length are more important. Here's how to know if a child is ready to ditch the booster seat:

  • Children can sit with their buttocks all the way back to the crack of the seat.
  • Their knees bend over the vehicle seat and are not extended straight across it.
  • The shoulder strap of the seat belt should rest across the collarbone and over the breastbone, not over the neck and arm.
  • The lap belt should be low on the pelvis and not rest across the soft belly.

Hoffman says you should remember that different automakers' seat belts and seat-belt locations vary; if you switch cars, test the seat belts on kids to determine if they can ride booster-free. "The same kid can have different needs depending on the configuration of the seat belts and the size of the child," Hoffman says. (Learn more from the NHTSA.)

5. Keep kids under 13 out of the front seat.

Regardless of height and weight, all children under 13 should ride in the backseat, where they are better protected from injury. "Even though they might look like they're adult-sized, they still have a child's body composition," Hoffman says. "Their ligaments, tendons, and muscles are weaker and bend differently. There's a 40 percent increased risk of injury if they ride in the front."

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