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Child & Teen Health
How smart are you about car seats?
- By Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing
Follow me on Twitter @drClaire
If you’re a parent — or anyone else who has driven a child somewhere — you likely know quite a bit about car seats.
Or do you?
As both a pediatrician and a parent, I know that lots of people don’t know everything they should about car seats and booster seats. It’s understandable, as the information can be confusing, and while resources are available, many parents don’t know about them. But it’s a problem, because making a mistake when it comes to car seats can literally be life-threatening. Of the children 12 years and younger who died in motor vehicle crashes in 2015, more than a third weren’t buckled up.
Let’s test your smarts. Can you answer these questions?
See all the answers here:
When should parents change from a rear-facing seat to a forward-facing one?
a) 12 months
b) 24 months
c) When they outgrow the rear-facing seat (assuming they are at least 24 months old)
Answer: C. Turning children around too early is one of the most common car seat mistakes people make. In part, that’s because the recommendation used to be to turn children forward-facing at a year (that was the recommendation when my eldest children were babies), and some grandparents and others don’t realize it has changed. It’s also tempting to turn children around early because it’s easier to see them from the front seat.
But here’s the thing: children are safer if they are rear-facing. It’s just the physics of crashes and little bodies. So if a child turns two and is within the weight and height recommendations of the seat, leave them facing backward.
Remember, never put a car seat in a seat with an airbag — and the safest place in the car for the car seat is the middle of the back seat.
What is the youngest age you can move a child from a car seat to a booster seat?
Answer: C. This is another common mistake. Just because your child has started preschool doesn’t mean they can get out of their car seat. And just because they are in kindergarten or first grade doesn’t mean they still don’t need to be in one. It is recommended that children be in a car seat, not a booster seat, until they are 5 years old, but they can, and should, stay in it if they are still within the weight and height recommendations of the seat.
How long does a child need to be in a booster seat?
a) Until the car seat belt fits properly
b) Until they are 57 inches tall
c) Until they are 8 years old
Answer: The real answer is A. It’s kind of the point of booster seats. Children should be in a booster seat until the lap portion of the seat belt goes across the upper thigh, not the belly, and the shoulder portion goes across the chest, not the neck. That’s generally at a height of 57 inches (4 feet 9 inches).
Every state is a little different when it comes to the laws about children and car restraints. Here in Massachusetts, the law says that a child must be in a car seat or booster until they are 8 years old or 57 inches tall. Other states say seatbelts alone are okay at 6 or 7 — and others use weight guidelines. You should know the laws in your state. But even if the law says it’s okay to ditch the booster seat for your child, don’t do it if he or she is shorter than 57 inches or the seat belt doesn’t fit right for some other reason. Booster seats can cut the risk of serious injury by half.
Remember, too, that with booster seats, car seats, and seat belts, no ride is too short to buckle up!
At what age can a child ride in the front seat?
Answer: D. Yup, 13. Children 12 and under should be in the back seat. They are safer there. Part of it has to do with the airbag, and the size a person should be to be safe with one. I know that this sounds arbitrary — there are lots of 11 and 12 year-olds who are adult size — but it’s the recommendation. We’d all be safer in the back seat, honestly. So even if it makes your sixth or seventh grader mad, just say no to the front seat. Better your kid be mad at you than be seriously injured — or dead.
What percentage of car and booster seats are installed or used incorrectly?
Answer: C. Almost half (thank goodness it’s not D!). There are lots of ways people mess up, including:
- turning it around too soon
- not installing it tightly enough, or at the wrong angle
- using both the seatbelt and the LATCH system
- leaving the straps too loose
- putting clips in the wrong place.
Having installed car seats myself, I know how tough it can be. Luckily, there’s help available. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has all sorts of information and resources to help parents keep their children safe in the car, including buying and installation help for car seats and booster seats and information on how to get your seat inspected. Safe Kids has information on how to find technicians who can help you with installation problems and questions.
There are also lots of great resources on healthychildren.org, the parent education website of the American Academy of Pediatrics — check out their car seat information for families.
About the Author
Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
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