As the summer driving season gets underway, it's a good time to look at car-seat, booster-seat and seat-belt safety for all road trips — from cross-country sightseeing to a trip to the grocery store.
Rear-facing car seats
The American Academy of Pediatrics says that children younger than 2 should remain in rear-facing car seats.
Rear-facing car seats are generally safer than front-facing car seats because the crash impact gets spread across the back of the seat rather than the front of the child, says Tareka Wheeler, a Safe Kids Austin coordinator at Dell Children's Medical Center in Austin, Texas. Even after the age of 2, if a child still fits within the height and weight requirement of that rear-facing car seat, keep him or her there until the seat is outgrown.
The most important thing parents can do when installing these car seats is read the car seat's instructions and the car manufacturer's instructions. The manufacturer will tell you where the LATCH system is in the car, which stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. Even though the safest place for that rear-facing car seat is the middle of the back seat, some older cars don't have a LATCH system for that seat.
Seat safety for children
Keep the youngest child in the middle of the car and have the right kind of car seat for each passenger based on age and weight.
- An infant must be in a rear-facing car seat.
- A child younger than age 2 should be in a rear-facing car seat.
- A 2- to 4-year-old should ride in a forward-facing car seat until the child reaches the upper weight and/or height limit for the seat.
- A 4- to 7-year-old should sit in a high-back booster seat until the child reaches the upper weight and/or height limit for the seat.
- An 8- to 12-year-old less than 4-feet-9-inches tall can be in a high-back booster or a low-back booster used with the car's adjustable headrest until the child reaches the upper weight and/or height limit for the seat.
Given a choice between using a LATCH system or the seat belt to attach the car seat, use the car's LATCH system. Don't use both, which can put undue stress on the seat. When using a seat belt, make sure it's threaded correctly through the car seat according to the car seat manufacturer's instructions.
Most rear- and forward-facing car seats also have harnesses that get threaded through different places depending on the height of the child. You'll want to make sure that harness is in the right place, and that it is tight. You should not be able to pinch the harness straps together anywhere. The chest piece that goes across the harness should be parallel to the child's armpits.
Once it's time to turn your child around, reread the car seat manufacturer's guide (find it online if you've lost it) and your car manual. Most forward-facing seats have a top tether to be latched to the car. If you don't use it, the car seat could tumble over in a crash with your child in it. Use the bottom LATCH system or the seat belt. If using the seat belt, don't forget to pull it out and then let it slide back to lock it. If your car seat is convertible, make sure the base is in the right position.
Keep the child in the forward-facing car seat until he or she outgrows it by height or weight.
Many booster seats start as a high-back booster seat, and the back can be removed once a child reaches a certain height. Unlike a car seat, a booster is not restraining anything. You are using the seat belt to do that.
Make sure you have read the booster seat manufacturer's instructions for inserting the seat belt into the booster. You want the belt to be tight, but not cutting off circulation.
Just a seat belt
Kids should stay in boosters until they are 57 inches tall (4 feet 9 inches). Some kids might reach that around age 8. Others might be 12. The 4-foot-9-inch recommendation is based on a University of Michigan study that tested different-size kids in different cars to find the point at which the kid fit well in the seat belt. A child should be able to sit with the corner of his or her knees at the edge of the seat. The belt should rest on the clavicle bone, not the neck, and on the hip bones, not the belly.