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Three Tips You Need to Know About Car Seat Safety

By Kristin V. Shaw

Before my son was born, I obsessively read reviews and polled friends about car seats. Which one should I buy? Which one is the safest? Which one won’t bankrupt us? Which one fits in my vehicle? It felt overwhelming; mix too many choices with pregnancy hormones and that can be a panic attack waiting to happen. But I broke it down, step by step.

First, you do your research. Then, you choose the car seat that you think is best. And then you get to the installation part. Depending on the year of your vehicle, it can be easy or it can be challenging, depending on your car’s LATCH locations and how willing you are to contort yourself into the back seat to ensure the car seat is firmly and properly fitted. (Reference’s comprehensive car seat check section to see how your vehicle stacks up.)


I also learned that keeping up-to-date on car seat safety is important after you buy your infant car seat. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) regularly updates its guidelines for car seat safety (it most recently updated its guidelines in August 2018), currently led by Benjamin Hoffman, MD, FAAP,  chair of the AAP Council on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention: “Car crashes remain a leading cause of death for children. Over the last 10 years, four children under 14 and younger died each day. We hope that by helping parents and caregivers use the right car safety seat for each and every ride that we can better protect kids, and prevent tragedies,” said Dr. Hoffman in the AAP’s press release from last August.

With all of that in mind, how do you best protect your little bundles of joy in the car?

First, a little quiz:

1)      Should you use the LATCH system, the seat belt, or both to fasten a car seat in place?

2)      True or false: car seat weight and height limits are standard across all seats.

3)      True or false: If you have been in an accident, give the seat a visual inspection. If it looks ok, it’s fine to continue using it.

We’ll give you the answers in these car seat safety tips:

1. First, read the manuals, plural (pssst – the car seat AND the vehicle manuals)

This might sound like common sense, but reading the car seat manufacturer‘s user guide and matching it up to the owner’s manual for your vehicle is the only sure way to know if you’re fitting the seat correctly. And yet, most people don’t; they’ll most likely read the car seat user guide but don’t cross-check it with the vehicle owner’s manual.

Do you use both the LATCH system and seat belt to fasten the car seat in place? No. (… and there’s your answer for Quiz Question #1). Most car seats instruct you to utilize one or the other, which would be outlined in the car seat user guide and vehicle owner’s manual. If you tossed either of these long ago, you can find it online with a quick Google search. (For instance, if you have a 2015 Toyota RAV4, search “2015 Toyota RAV4 owner’s manual” and it will pop up.) If you are using both the LATCH and the seat belt, that generally means the car seat is not installed properly.

Sarah Tilton, an internationally-recognized expert in child-passenger safety, suggests attending a car-seat clinic to learn how to position your seat. However, clinic leaders should not install your car seat for you; they need to teach you how to do it correctly with hands-on practice. The last thing you need is to take out the seat when you go out to dinner and then get stuck trying to figure it out on the go. Car seat clinics are available all over the country – for instance, search “car seat clinic new york” and you’ll be directed to the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee page or visit, with information on clinics in the area.

2. A rear-facing seat is the best choice

Laws for car seat use vary from state to state; some mandate rear-facing seats for babies under the age of two, and others do not specify. Based on the latest research, it’s clear that it is recommended to use your car seat to the maximum height or weight allowed by the manufacturer. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children remain rear-facing as long as possible until the child reaches the top height and weight restrictions for their car seat.  Most convertible seats have limits that will allow children to ride rear-facing for 2 years or more. Each seat is different, and the restrictions should be closely adhered to, which is the answer to Quiz Question #2. All car seats are not made the same.

Tilton, an advocate and safety spokesperson for car-seat manufacturer Britax agrees that children are best protected when the parent or caregiver is abiding by the maximum height and weight allowed by the manufacturer for each mode of use:

“Frontal crashes are the most common. When we turn kids forward too early, whiplash is much more severe to their skeletal system. And since their bones aren’t fully calcified yet, the potential for injury is higher.”

As children grow up, best practice recommendations show that they should remain in a child restraint (meaning a car seat system– like a convertible car seat or booster) up until they fit the car’s seat belt correctly. In some states, car-seat laws only require children up to eight years old to use a child restraint system of some kind; my son is 9 and still uses a booster because of the way our seat belts fit him. He is not happy about it, but I stand firm.

As the AAP writes in its latest guidelines: “Parents often look forward to transitioning from one stage or milestone to the next. In car seats, this is one area where transitions are not “positive,” and where delaying transitions is best. Each transition – from rear-facing to forward-facing, from forward-facing to booster seat, and from booster seat to seat belt alone – reduces the protection to the child.”

3. You *must* replace your car seat if you are in an accident (Do not pass go, Do not collect $200)

Like internal injuries to a person’s body, internal damage to a car seat is not always discernible upon visual inspection. In high-quality car seats, the frame and insulation are designed to absorb impact; however, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends that car seats be replaced following a moderate or severe crash in order to ensure a continued high level of crash protection.

What delineates a moderate crash from a minor crash? NHTSA says a minor crash is when ALL of the following apply (not just one or two from the list). If one or more of these are untrue, that is a moderate or serious crash.

  • The vehicle was able to be driven away from the crash site.
  • The vehicle door nearest the car seat was not damaged.
  • None of the passengers in the vehicle sustained any injuries in the crash.
  • If the vehicle has airbags, the airbags didn’t deploy during the crash, and
  • There is no visible damage to the car seat.

“Think of car seats like a seat belt or airbag; they’re intended for one-time use,” says Tilton. “Many people don’t know that we should have seat belts replaced – when it locks up in an accident, the force on that belt is much higher. The webbing will stretch; with a car seat, the harness is much like that. It will stretch, and there could be internal damage to a car seat that is not visible.”

When airbags are deployed, you can’t stuff them back in place, right? Seat belts are not like stretchy pants: they’re more like stretch marks that never leave after pregnancy. With a car seat, the internal harness is much like that. It will stretch.

Internal damage to a car seat is not always discernible to the naked eye (Quiz Question #3 answer: FALSE). Some car seat manufacturers direct you to replace the car seat after any crash and some follow the NHTSA guidelines to replace only in a moderate to severe crash. It is best to check with the manufacturer of your specific car seat to ensure you understand the requirements for replacement after a crash.

“Our children are our most precious cargo; don’t take a chance,” says Tilton. “My recommendation is that if you’re ever at all uncomfortable [about the ability of the car seat to protect your child], it’s best to replace it for your peace of mind.”

Final Thoughts

If you haven’t already done so, I would recommend reading the AAP’s Recommendations on Car Seats for Children and subscribing to their updates if and when they are announced.  The article is clear, concise and will only take a few incredibly worthwhile minutes of your time.

About the Author

Kristin V. Shaw

Drive Mode Show

Writer, car fanatic, and mom, Kristin Shaw is the co-host of Drive Mode Show and owner of Firewheel Communications, in Austin, Texas. Find her at KristinVShaw....

Writer, car fanatic, and mom, Kristin Shaw is the co-host of Drive Mode Show and owner of Firewheel Communications, in Austin, Texas. Find her at and

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