You obsessively plug up all the electrical outlets and lock up the detergent and bleach, but one of the biggest dangers for babies is the everyday act of riding in your car. Why is car seat safety so important? Because motor vehicle crashes cause one out of every four accidental deaths for children (the most recently available stats show that in 2015, 663 children under the age of 13 were passengers killed in a car crash—and nearly one in three of those children weren’t even strapped in).
But even more alarming is the news that three out of four car seats are not installed properly, according to AAA’s Safe Seats 4 Kids data. “So many of the deaths and injuries we see are preventable,” says Gloria Del Castillo, a child passenger safety expert for Buckle Up for Life, a national injury prevention program from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and Toyota. “In most cases when children get injured in a crash, it’s not because they weren’t in a car seat, but because the car seat wasn’t installed correctly.”
Del Castillo outlines the most common safety errors parents make all the time without realizing it—and how to keep baby safe on the road. But first things first: Buy a car seat that’s right for your child’s age, weight and size; then read on before you hit the road.
Mistake #1: Improper car seat installation
“There’s no shame in reading the manual and trying to figure it out yourself,” Del Castillo says, “but at the end of the day, we’re still making deadly mistakes.” For starters, make sure the car seat won’t budge more than an inch from side to side or front to back. Check that the straps of the harness are snug against baby’s body when she’s strapped in. Del Castillo recommends doing the pinch test: If there’s enough slack that you can wrinkle a bit of strap between your fingers, it’s not tight enough. And don’t forget to lock in the tether strap when the car seat is forward-facing—that one move boosts the seat’s stability by 45 percent.
Mistake #2: Forgetting to check the angles
It’s critical, especially with newborns, that rear-facing car seats recline at a 45-degree angle, but most parents don’t know to check for that. “If the car seat isn’t reclined according to the manufacturer’s instructions, it’s a red flag that it’s not installed properly,” Del Castillo says. There’s also another danger with a seat that’s too upright: The soft muscles in a newborn’s neck and back can’t support baby’s head, and if his or her head isn’t resting back it can easily flop forward and cut off a child’s air supply. It’s for this scary reason that car seats come equipped with a level indicator, Del Castillo says. Make sure yours is showing an incline of 45 degrees.
Mistake #3: Not consulting a (free!) pro
If you’ve installed the car seat yourself, bravo! Now let a certified child passenger safety technician check your handiwork. To find one, go to BuckleUpforLife.org, click on “Need Help in Your Area,” then enter your zip code to get a listing of local Car Seat Inspection Stations and Safety Technicians. “It’s free and it could save your child’s life,” Del Castillo says. “Why wouldn’t you do it?”
Mistake #4: Switching to forward-facing too soon
This is a simple case of outdated information. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) used to recommend that infants switch from rear-facing to forward-facing when they reached age one or 20 pounds. And close to a quarter of parents are still doing that, not realizing the recommendation was updated in 2011. Now, you shouldn’t make the switch until either baby is 2 years old, or he exceeds the height or weight limit for the car seat (that info be found on a sticker on the back of the seat). “Before age 2 the bones that protect the spinal cord are still developing, so the safest position for babies is rear-facing, where their back, which is the strongest part of their body, can absorb any impact,” Del Castillo says. In fact, a child remaining rear-facing through the age of 2 is 75 percent less likely to die or be severely injured in a crash.
Mistake #5: Buying second-hand
We’re all for reusing and recycling, but when it comes to a car seat, you’re much safer buying new. “With a used one, you don’t know if it’s been recalled or if it’s past its expiration date,” Del Castillo says. Yes, car seats actually have expiration dates! Usually around six years, since the plastic can degrade over time and alter the effectiveness of the seat. You also don’t know if a used car seat has been in a crash before. If so, it could be damaged and no longer structurally sound. Shopping for used because the price of new is too steep? Keep this in mind: “A $50 car seat is just as safe as a $300 car seat,” Del Castillo says. “All car seats are equally safe because they all have to meet performance standards set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.” If the most basic car seat is out of your budget, check with your local hospital or fire or police department—they often have programs that make car seats available to eligible families for free.
Mistake #6: Going overboard with accessories
We trick out baby’s car seats with everything from covers, cocoons and head support pillows to strap protectors and toy bars. These are all good intentions, but bad ideas. “Anything that didn’t come with the car seat has not been crash-tested and could be dangerous in an accident,” Del Castillo says. It’s especially important not to place any blankets between baby and the car seat or between baby and the harness straps. This no-accessories rule also extends to those mirrors that let you see baby when he’s rear-facing—even if attached well they could easily become projectiles if the car stops suddenly. Same goes for the sun shades attached with suction cups—they can pop off and cause harm. (The ones that stick on the window are fine though.)
Mistake #7: Blowing off the booster
Children should ride in a booster seat until they’re 4’9”, even if they’re not happy about it. “Some kids feel babyish in the booster as they get older, especially if they have older siblings who aren’t using a booster seat,” Del Castillo says. Nearly 9 in 10 parents remove children from their booster before they’ve reached the recommended height, which leaves the seatbelt in a bad spot. “Children end up putting the shoulder belt behind their head or under their arm because it bothers them,” Del Castillo says. This can cause the belt to rise up on the belly, instead of the hips where it’s supposed to sit, and if you end up in a crash it can lead to severe injuries like spinal cord damage or whiplash. “When the seatbelt doesn’t fit right,” she says, “you’re taking an extreme risk.”
Mistake #8: Skipping the seat just this once
It’s easy to think: 'I’m just going around the corner,' 'I’m in a hurry,' or 'I’m in familiar territory'—I can skip the car seat or not bother buckling the harness. But as you’ve probably heard most fatal crashes happen close to home. One study found that 52 percent of reported crashes take place five miles or less from the home, and 77 percent within 15 miles. The golden rule with car seats is that in order for them to be effective, you have to actually use them. Every single time. “It’s worth taking the extra 30 seconds to buckle up right,” Del Castillo says. “It could just save your child’s life.”
Updated March 2017