As anyone with kids will know, car seats save lives. This essential bit of kit is just as important as a standard seatbelt when it comes to vehicle safety. Because infants and younger children have not yet had a chance to fully develop, their bodies are even more vulnerable than adults’ to the effects of a collision. Studies show that the use of child car seats reduces the risk of an infant’s death in the event of an accident by a staggering 71%. For toddlers, too, the likelihood of fatality is hugely reduced by the use of an appropriate car seat – by 54% in fact.
Despite these benefits, the truth is that even the most vigilant parents are prone to mistakes when installing a car seat for their little one. Since car seats can only properly deliver their full life-saving potential when installed correctly, these seemingly small oversights can easily develop into bigger problems. Thankfully, help is at hand: below we discuss 10 of the most common mistakes carers make when installing a car seat, so you can avoid them and provide your child with the best possible protection.
1. Installing the Car Seat in the Front of the Vehicle
This one small change will significantly decrease the likelihood of children suffering injury or death in the event of an accident. Children aged four to eight years are half as likely to receive a fatal injury when sitting in the back seat of a car as opposed to the front. This is because, especially for younger passengers, sitting shotgun is far more dangerous. Front-on impacts are the most common, and if kids sit up front they’re much closer to the site of the collision, increasing the risk of injury from broken glass and the force of the impact. Airbags, generally installed in the front of vehicles, can also be dangerous for children. These bags deploy at 200 to 400 miles per hour and can do more harm than good for passengers whose bodies are still developing.
It’s recommended that children ride in the backseat until they are around 13 years old. Car seats should always be installed in the back of the car, whether they’re rear facing, forward facing, or a booster seat.
2. Not installing the Seat Tightly Enough
Checking that you have installed a car seat tightly enough is absolutely vital. Whether you’re installing the seat using current seatbelts, or with UAS anchor points, your child’s seat, quite literally, shouldn’t allow for much wiggle room.
When you give the car seat a firm shake, you shouldn’t observe more than one inch of movement from side to side or back and forth. If you do, tighten the straps as much as possible. If installing the seat through anchor points in your car doesn’t seem to be getting the seat tight enough, you could try installing it with a lap belt instead, as this might be easier to secure. Generally speaking, installing a car seat with a seatbelt is a little quicker and easier than using anchor points. This could be the best option if you’re planning on regularly moving the seat from one car to another. Each car and seat will be slightly different, though, so taking the time to figure out what works is essential. If you are struggling, we recommend getting some help from an expert.
3. Positioning the Harness Incorrectly
Another common car seat mistake people tend to make is incorrectly positioning the harness. If the straps of a car seat do not rest correctly on your child’s body, they won’t be getting the maximum level of protection. Below are the correct strap positions for different types of car seat:
- Infant Car Seats
For infant car seats with both three and five-point harnesses, the straps should be snug enough that you can only slide a single finger underneath them. The chest clip should sit at about armpit level, and you should not be able to pinch the straps away from your child’s shoulders. Ideally, you should also ensure that your child is not wearing any bulky clothing, as this can interfere with their positioning and the fitting of the straps.
- Forward Facing Car Seats
If there are multiple slots for the straps to go through, use ones that are at your child’s shoulder level or below. Make sure the straps are tight enough that you can’t easily slide more than one finger underneath them. If the seat has a shield, position this as close to the child’s body as possible.
- Booster Seats
When your child moves on to a booster seat, it’s important to make sure it does its job and moves the car’s seatbelt into the safest position. The lap belt should sit snugly over your child’s thighs, whilst the chest strap should lie across their chest, and not dig into their neck.
4. Switching to a Forward Facing Seat too Soon
The government recommends traveling with infant passengers in a rear-facing car seat for as long as possible – ideally until they are two years old. This is because a rear facing seat offers the most protection in the event of a collision. Since the majority of collisions occur head-on, having infants face away from the impact site is beneficial, since the car seat will be positioned so as to absorb as much of the force as possible. Additionally, an infant’s back is the strongest part of their body. When their back faces the collision rather than their front, vital organs are protected. Facing forward in a vehicle also increases the risk of your child sustaining leg injuries if you are involved in a collision.
Moving onto a front facing car seat negates these benefits, and parents and carers should be in no hurry to do so. If you have an infant car seat, your child should travel in it until they reach the upper weight limit – only then is it advisable to switch to a forward facing seat. If you’ve chosen a convertible car seat, you may be able to use it in the rear facing configuration for a little longer, since they’re designed to protect children up to a greater stage of development.
5. Using the Incorrect Recline Angle
Infants should be positioned in their car seat at an angle of 45 degrees. This ensures their head, neck, and back are adequately cradled by the back of the seat, whilst allowing them to breathe as comfortably as possible. Most infant car seats are fitted with a spirit level, so you can check that it’s positioned correctly.
Convertible car seats can be a little bulkier than infant car seats, so if you’re considering purchasing one of these, make sure the back of your car is roomy enough that it can recline at the correct angle. If you need to push the front seats a long way forward to do this you’re probably better off with an infant car seat – your safety and comfort are important too!
6. Using a Car Seat not Compatible with Your Car
All cars manufactured after 2002 are required by law to have anchor points for installing child seats. However, if your vehicle was assembled before this, you will probably need to purchase a seat that can be installed using the car’s existing seatbelts.
In addition, check that your car is large enough to accommodate the seat. If you have a smaller vehicle, for instance, you will probably want to buy an infant car seat, and subsequently, progress to a forward facing seat. This is because, as mentioned above, the convertible seats tend to be a little bulkier, and making sure you and your other passengers have enough room is important. Be sure not to neglect your own safety when attending to the safety of your child.
7. Using a Car Seat again after an Accident
Obvious as it might sound, this is a surprisingly common mistake. If you have been involved in an accident, you should always purchase a new car seat, regardless of whether or not the old one appears to be damaged. This is because car seats are designed to absorb the impact of a collision, and by doing so are irreparably damaged. Luckily, many car insurance policies will cover the cost of a new seat in the event of an accident.
Similarly, you should never buy a car seat second hand. Safety technology evolves so quickly that you should always buy a brand new seat. It’s also difficult to tell whether a second-hand seat has been involved in any collisions. A new car seat is always a sound investment, and affordable options are available if your budget is tight. All seats sold in the US must not conform to certain standards of safety, so purchasing a brand new car seat will also give you peace of mind.
8. Using the wrong Belt Path
When installing a convertible car seat, it’s surprisingly common to accidentally use the wrong belt path – for example, using the belt path designed for the forward facing position when installing the seat in its rear facing configuration.
Using the wrong belt path can result in the car seat being insecure, meaning that it won’t provide optimum protection in the event of a collision or sudden stop. The belt paths are often clearly labeled to help you out, but the best way to avoid this pitfall is to thoroughly read the car seat manual.
9. Not following the Manuals
Installing a car seat might seem intuitive, but this is often not the case! When installing a new seat, it is vital that you consult both the car seat manual and the manual for your car. Try to set aside a decent chunk of time to do this before attempting to go ahead and install the seat.
Your car manual will provide invaluable advice on how to locate its anchor points, lock seatbelts in position, and more, whilst the car seat manual will offer step by step instructions for installation. Each car seat and vehicle is slightly different, and there is no universal method for installing one, so consulting the manual is vital whether this is your first installation, or you’re something of a car seat veteran.
10. Not asking for Help
Clearly, car seats can be surprisingly complicated! For new parents, choosing and installing one can be yet another source of stress during an already challenging time. Fortunately, if you’re unsure whether you’ve installed a car seat correctly, you always have the option of checking with an expert. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offers a searchable database of locations where you can obtain a free safety check. Using this service can give you the peace of mind you need – especially if you’re installing a car seat for the first time. An expert will check you’ve correctly fitted the seat according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Many parents are surprised by how many car seat mistakes have slipped under their radar when they make use of this service, so it’s definitely worth a try.
It would appear that car seat installation is fraught with potential pitfalls, but hopefully, this guide can help you to avoid some key mistakes. When installing a car seat, the single best thing you can do is research. Knowing which seats are a good fit for your car, how it can be best installed, and some general safety tips will go a long way towards keeping your child safe and secure. Finally, if you are ever in any doubt about whether you have installed your car seat correctly, you should ask for advice from an expert. This is a hugely valuable resource, which will not only benefit you but also other parents, as you pass along sound safety advice.