One can never be too thorough when car shopping. Keep these questions in mind to ensure you're finding a safe vehicle and investing in child-friendly accessories.
Here are some important questions to consider before you begin shopping for your next vehicle:
1. How many children will you be transporting?
This is important to consider because you need to check out the backseat seatbelt situation. Regardless of whether or not your kids are still in car seats, it is essential that your car has one seatbelt for each passenger. Make sure that there are as many seatbelts in the backseat as there are kids through the age of 12 in your family—anyone under 13 should stay buckled up in the backseat.
2. Will you be installing child seats? Where will you place them?
Children under the age of 1 should always ride in the back seat in a rear-facing car seat—either a rear-facing only car seat or a convertible car seat. Never place a rear-facing car seat in the front seat with an active frontal airbag.
"Riding in a properly installed car seat or booster seat is the number one way we can make sure our most vulnerable passengers are protected on the roads," said Heidi King, deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "About half of seats are installed incorrectly, so seeking out the correct way to install and use their seat is paramount to your child’s safety."
It's recommended that you keep your child rear-facing for as long as possible. It’s the best way to kids safe, and protect their head, neck, and spinal cord. Your child should remain in a rear-facing car seat until he or she reaches the top height or weight limit allowed by your car seat’s manufacturer.
Most (but not all) convertible car seats now can accommodate children up to 40 lbs when rear-facing and 65 lbs when forward-facing—check the label and owner’s manual for confirmation.
“Car seats should always be registered with the manufacturer at the time of purchase so caregivers can be alerted if a recall occurs," King said.
3. Do you need a booster seat?
You should keep your child in a forward-facing car seat with a harness and tether until he or she reaches the top height or weight limit allowed by your car seat’s manufacturer. Once your child outgrows a forward-facing car seat with a harness, it’s time to travel in a booster seat—though still in the back seat. A booster seat positions the seat belt so that it fits properly over the stronger parts of your child's body.
Booster seats come in a few formulas—high-back booster seats provide head and neck support and are ideal for cars without headrests or high seat backs. Backless booster seats allow a seat belt to fit properly, but do not provide head or neck support.
Most belt-positioning booster seats will accommodate children up to about 80 pounds. When used properly, booster seats can help prevent injury to older children by making adult-sized seat belts fit more effectively. The adult lap and shoulder belt should fit the child snugly, with the lap belt laying flat across the lap/upper thigh area, and the shoulder belt crossing the chest, resting against the middle of the child's shoulder. Without a belt-positioning booster seat, the lap belt can ride up over the child's stomach and cause serious internal injuries in a crash, and the shoulder belt can cross the face, causing the child to slide out from underneath it, causing serious injury to the head, face, and neck.
Keep your child in a booster seat until he or she is big enough to fit in a seat belt properly. For a seat belt to fit properly, the lap belt must lie snugly across the upper thighs, not the stomach. The shoulder belt should lie snug across the shoulder and chest and not cross the neck or face. Remember: your child should still ride in the back seat through the age of 12.
4. Will the vehicle seat belt system meet the needs of your children?
Correct seat belt use for all vehicle occupants should be the rule in your vehicle. Children who have outgrown child seats and booster seats should be able to fit the adult belt system correctly. The lap belt should fit low over the child's upper thighs when he or she is sitting straight against the vehicle seat back, and the child's knees should bend comfortably over the edge of the vehicle seat. The shoulder belt should stay on the shoulder and be close to the child's chest. Never put the shoulder belt under the arm or behind the child's back. The adult lap and shoulder belt system alone will not fit most children until they are about 4 feet 9 inches tall and weigh about 80 pounds.
A lap-only belt (without a shoulder strap) should be used to restrain a child only if no other seat belt system is available. If you must transport several children in a vehicle that has a lap-only belt in the middle rear seat, and one of the children is in a rear-facing or a convertible or toddler child seat, have the older children use the lap and shoulder belts and put the child riding in a child seat in the middle. Then secure the child seat with the lap-only belt.
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5. What is the child safety seat "LATCH" restraint system?
Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) is a standardized system in cars manufactured after May 2002, consisting of two parts: lower anchors to secure a child safety seat, and a top tether meant for forward-facing seats. Forward-facing car seats can be installed using either the lower anchors and tether, or a seat belt and tether. Rear-facing car seats can be installed with either the lower anchors or the seat belt—never both. There is no safety difference between the lower anchors and seatbelts—it’s a matter a preference for parents. Always follow the recommendations of both the car seat and vehicle manufacturer, found in both owners’ manuals, when installing your car seat.
The LATCH regulations were updated in 2014, to require that a consumer warning label must appear on all child restraints, displaying the maximum weight for use of the lower anchors. This label combines the weight of the child, and the weight of the restraint, to determine the how long lower anchors can be used to install a child safety seat. Once a child exceeds that maximum anchor weight, the seat will need to be installed using a seat belt instead.
Unsure as to whether you’ve strapped your car seat correctly? Have the seat inspected by a certified technician. For locations near you, search the NHTSA website.
6. What about side airbags?
Side airbags, which are not required by law, provide additional chest protection to adults in many side crashes; some also provide head protection. Consumers should be aware that children who are seated in close proximity to a side airbag may be at risk of serious or fatal injury if the airbag deploys, especially if the child's head, neck, or chest is close to the airbag at the time of deployment. Since children 12 and under should ride in the backseat, you should not purchase a vehicle with an activated rear side airbag unless the manufacturer has determined that those side airbags pose no significant risk to children. Because there are variations in the design and performance of side airbags, check with the dealer or read the owner's manual for information and warnings about child passengers and side impact airbags.
Find more information on car safety here.