6 Deadly Car-Seat Mistakes
The NHTSA estimates that, at any given time, more than 70 percent of young automobile passengers are exposed to potentially fatal consequences because they're not properly strapped in. These are the most common slipups that you need to avoid.
- Buying the wrong seat. The salesperson might tell you that car seats are a one-size-fits-all product, but it's not that simple. Before buying a particular model car seat, parents should carry it out to the parking lot and try strapping it in using either the seat belts or, on newer model cars, the LATCH system. (The acronym stands for lower anchors and tethers for children, and these are standard on all cars made after 2002.) If you can't get a tight fit, if the tether straps don't match up properly with the anchors on the car, or even if it's simply awkward to handle the seat, try a different one until you find one that feels right.
- Not installing the seat correctly. A car seat works best when it is so tight that it effectively becomes part of the car's structure; it should move no more than an inch when you shake it from side to side or pull it forward. To get a tight fit, put your knee into the seat and press your weight into it while cinching down the seat belt or the LATCH tether straps. If you use LATCH, you can't also use the car's seat belt, so buckle the seat belt behind the child restraint to discourage your child from playing with it.
- Not tightly strapping in your child. Sometimes, parents loosen the car-seat harness when their child is wearing heavy clothing (like a snowsuit) and then forget to tighten it again later on. Or they simply loosen the straps thinking their child will be more comfortable. But it's critical that your child is always snugly strapped in: The harness should fit tightly. If you want to use blankets, wrap them around your child after she's securely buckled in. If your car seat comes with a plastic harness clip, keep it adjusted to armpit level to hold the shoulder straps securely in place. Remember to change the harness settings when you move the car seat from a rear-facing to a forward-facing position. When infants are facing backward, the harness straps should rest at or below their shoulders. When facing forward, they should be at or above shoulder level.
- Turning the seat around too soon. Many parents like to see their baby in the rearview mirror or think he'll be happier if he's looking ahead. But turning the seat too soon can be a dangerous mistake. To be protected, children should stay in a rear-facing seat until they're at least a year old and 20 pounds. "Babies are especially vulnerable to head and spine injuries if their car seat isn't facing toward the back," says Dr. Durbin, who kept his own kids in rear-facing seats until they were 18 months. As for concerns about a child's legs being too big for a rear-facing seat, Dr. Durbin says don't worry: There's no evidence babies suffer unusual leg injuries.
- Blowing off boosters. While the use of car seats has gone up in recent years, the use of boosters for kids between 4 and 8 has actually gone down -- even though kids can be severely injured without them. In a crash, a child can slip out of an ill-fitting adult shoulder belt or can "jackknife" over the lap belt, suffering head, face, abdominal, or spinal injuries. Boosters help keep kids safe because they raise the child to a height where the seat belt fits properly across her lap and chest. Children are more comfortable in boosters because kids' legs bend naturally at the end of the seat. It's also easier for children to sit upright in a booster, which in turn makes restraints most effective. Kids who are too big for car seats should use a booster until they reach a height of 4'9", regardless of age.
- Slacking off during car pools. It's enough of a hassle packing lunches, homework, and sports gear. No wonder most parents neglect to send along a booster seat when their kids get a ride in someone else's minivan. But it's important to get into the habit of making sure your child uses a booster, no matter whose car he's in. To make it easy, consider buying an extra one: Basic backless models cost about $20, and there's no evidence that fancier, more expensive boosters are any safer. If you're the driver, insist every child in your car uses a booster at all times. You might even invest in a few extras to ensure that your young passengers stay safe.