Car accidents are the leading cause of death of children in the United States. Every 33 seconds a child under the age of 13 is involved in a car crash. It's important to note that most of these deaths are preventable.
A study done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that in one year, more than 618,000 children rode in cars without the use of a child safety or booster seat, and of the children ages 12 years and younger who died in a crash in 2014, 34 percent were not buckled up.
Properly securing your child in a car is one of the most important things that you can do to keep your child safe. But you need to choose the right car seat and install it correctly. A ton of information is available on this topic, but it can get really overwhelming and confusing. Below we explain the most important safety tips for choosing and using car seats properly.
Keep kids facing backward.
Experts agree that the backward-facing position of an infant car seat is the absolute safest place for a child to sit. An article in Injury Prevention showed that 1- to 2-year-olds were five times safer in side-impact crashes when facing backward instead of forward.
They tend to suffer fewer leg injuries and don’t feel the effects of a crash on their brains and necks as much because their heads are cradled and immobilized. For this reason, pediatricians recommend that all children continue to ride in a rear-facing seat to the highest weight and height allowed for use in a rear-facing seat.
Typically that’s until age 2 or if the child reaches 50 pounds and their head is an inch below the top of the car seat. The longer your child can be in the rear-facing position, the safer they’ll be.
Keep car seat straps well positioned.
What good is a car seat if your kid can fly around in it? The straps on your child’s car seat must be fitted and adjusted correctly because the straps are what is keeping them from moving and becoming injured. They need to be snug (regardless of how much your child protests) and adjusted to your child’s personal measurements.
Be sure to remove bulky clothing like sweatshirts and jackets; these bunch up and make the fit improper. And kids can maneuver in and out of straps by moving their jackets around. You can always put that jacket on them backwards to keep them warm—after they are buckled in safely. It's also important to make sure there are no twists or kinks in the harness.
Specifications for rear-facing car seats include the shoulder straps being level with (or right below) a kid’s shoulders. In a forward-facing car seat it should be the opposite; the harness should be level with or slightly above the shoulders.
Keep them safe when they’re facing forward.
The change from a rear-facing to a forward-facing seat is a big jump. It’s also a scary jump, because the forward-facing position is considered less safe for your little one’s spine and brain.
Enter the tether! The tether is a system that comes with all forward-facing car seats and is what anchors the car seat to the car. The tether basically saves a kid's head in the event of a crash by decreasing how far a child's head can move by 4 to 6 inches. This can mean the difference between an uninjured child and serious or even fatal injuries.
In order for the tether system to work, though, it must be used correctly. Statistics show that only 30 percent of forward-facing children in the U.S. are tethered, and of those children, only 59 percent are tethered correctly. Be sure to follow both the car seat manufacturer’s and your car’s directions to the letter.
Keep your kid in the center.
Most parents put car seats in the side rear passenger seat because it’s easiest to buckle car seats and get kids in and out from there. But studies show that children who are newborn to 3 years old are 43 percent safer sitting in the center rear seat than on the side—especially in the event of a side-impact crash.
When the difference was further compared to the risk on the side of the accident, it was found that the percentage was closer to a 54 percent reduced risk of injury. Why is the center position the safest? During an accident, the person in the center has the most distance from the collision zone and is more insulated in that area.
As a side note, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends that all children under the age of 13 ride in that area of the car—car seat or not.
Time the booster seat right.
Experts agree that the graduation to a more advanced car seat should be delayed as long as possible in order to keep a child safe. But studies show that parents prematurely rush their growing children into booster seats because they’re lighter, easier to use, and less of a hassle to get kids in and out of.
The safety rules for a booster seat are that the child must be at least 4 years old, weigh 40 pounds, and be able to sit with a seat belt properly. Experts say that most kids are actually ready a little later, at age 6. The goal of the booster seat is to support the child and keep the belt properly positioned in the event of a crash.
How can you tell if your kid is ready to ditch the booster? The seat belt should fit the exact same when using it and not using it, which most people don't realize is usually around 10 to 12 years old.
Keep everyone buckled up.
Keeping adults and kids over the age of 12 buckled up in the car not only keeps them safe, but it keeps others safe as well. Studies show that the effects of not buckling up can be very dangerous to others riding in the car, because unsecured humans essentially become torpedoes.
In the event of a crash, an adult rider can be thrown around the car and seriously injure other passengers, particularly very small ones. Research shows that if an adult rides in the back without a buckle, the other people in the car are three times more likely to die in a crash.
When a car crashes, anything that’s not buckled down—people, pets, objects—goes flying until it hits something that stops its momentum or it is ejected from the car. Think you can hold yourself up or down? Studies (and physics) show that you can’t. Multiply your weight times the speed of the car and you’ll get your actual weight in a crash.
Have a pro check your seat.
Worried that you haven't installed your car seat correctly? You’re probably right! Studies show that 72 to 84 percent of car seats are improperly installed. More alarmingly, 96 percent of parents believed that their seats were up to code.
This is why it’s critically important to have a child passenger safety technician check the safety of your car seat and also teach you how to do it on your own. It usually takes takes only 20 to 30 minutes, and the information is priceless.
The best way to find a certified child passenger safety technician is to log on to either one of the following websites and enter your zip code to find a technician or station near you.
The National Child Passenger Safety Certification Program has a comprehensive car seat guide and will help you find a car seat tech.
The federal government's SaferCar.gov has everything you need to know about keeping your littles safe while on the move.
Firefighters and police officers aren’t necessarily properly trained to check your car seat, so be sure to ask if they are certified technicians.