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Play It Safe: Buckling Up Can Save Your Child’s Life

Do You Know?

Like many parents, you may be frustrated with what seems like the endless and thankless task of strapping your child in and out of a car seat several times a day.  You have to be a rocket scientist to understand how to install the seat in the first place, and some days buckling up a wiggling, crying child borders on the impossible.

But there is no question that your diligence pays off: It is likely to save your child’s life. Motor vehicle crashes are one of the leading causes of death for children under 13. Following are some sobering facts from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 2011 study of motor vehicle crashes involving children.

More than a third of children under 13 killed in car crashes were not in car seats or wearing seat belts. Every single day, two children under 13 were killed and 338 more were injured in crashes involving cars, SUVs, pickup trucks and vans.

The percentage of unrestrained fatalities – children neither in a car seat nor wearing seat belts – is staggering:

  • 55% of children riding in SUVs;
  • 43% of children riding in pickups;
  • 40% of children riding in vans; and
  • 24% of children riding in passenger cars.

Would these children have died if they were belted in child safety seats? As many as three out of four would still be alive, according to the NHTSA. Research indicates that car seats reduce fatal injury by 71% for infants and by 54% for toddlers age one to four in passenger cars. In light trucks,   infant deaths are reduced 58% and toddler fatalities are reduced 59%.

Overall, NHTSA estimates that from 1975 through 2011, nearly 10,000 lives were saved by child restraints for children under five in passenger vehicles. This is because car seat compliance for infants under one year old averages 97%, and 93% for toddlers between one and three.

Car seat or booster seat use drops off as children get older, to an average of about 82%, even though all states except Florida and South Dakota require booster seats for children from eight to 15. (Each year for the last several years, bills have been introduced before the Florida legislature to make booster seats mandatory rather than just recommended.  But they have died in committee every time.)

It is easy to see, for your child’s sake, why you will want to follow car seat guidelines developed by government agencies and child safety advocates.

You can find car seat recommendations and other helpful information for parents at Parents Central on, a website of the NHTSA.   Here is Parents Central’s chart to help you choose a car seat appropriate for your child at each age:

Birth – 12 Months

Your child under age 1 should always ride in a rear-facing car seat. There are different types of rear-facing car seats: Infant-only seats can only be used rear-facing. Convertible and 3-in-1 car seats typically have higher height and weight limits for the rear-facing position, allowing you to keep your child rear-facing for a longer period of time.

1 – 3 Years

Keep your child rear-facing as long as possible. It’s the best way to keep him or her safe. Your child should remain in a rear-facing car seat until he or she reaches the top height or weight limit allowed by your car seat’s manufacturer. Once your child outgrows the rear-facing car seat, your child is ready to travel in a forward-facing car seat with a harness.

4 – 7 Years

Keep your child in a forward-facing car seat with a harness until he or she reaches the top height or weight limit allowed by your car seat’s manufacturer. Once your child outgrows the forward-facing car seat with a harness, it’s time to travel in a booster seat, but still in the back seat.

8 – 12 Years

Keep your child in a booster seat until he or she is big enough to fit in a seat belt properly. For a seat belt to fit properly the lap belt must lie snugly across the upper thighs, not the stomach. The shoulder belt should lie snug across the shoulder and chest and not cross the neck or face. Remember: your child should still ride in the back seat because it’s safer there.


Although the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles recommends that anyone driving with children in the car follow the guidelines spelled out above, Florida law requires only that children under five years old be seated in federally-approved child car seats. A supervisory adult who fails to ensure this is subject to a $60 fine and three points against his or her driver’s license.

There are hundreds of different brands, models, and sizes of car seats on the market with safety innovations that weren’t even possible a few years ago. You should buy the best quality seat you can afford . . . but how do you choose?

First, as you shop, check the manufacturer’s label to make sure the models you are considering are appropriate for your child’s age, weight and height. Is this one rear-facing, forward-facing, or booster? Find out the seat’s limits: At what height and weight will you need to move your child to a larger model? In some cases, you may have to read the manual to find this out.

A major source of confusion is which car seats fit with various models of cars. In an effort to standardize some child car seat features, the NHTSA in 2000 began phasing in a latch system, requiring new motor vehicles to have anchors and fasteners at the top of vehicle seats that would lock in child car seats.

One of the most important pieces of information on the label will be the seat’s date of manufacture. Most people aren’t aware that car seats expire after six years. (The manufacturer’s stated expiration date may be longer, but the NHTSA and child safety groups agree that no seat should be used after it is six years old.) Why do car seats expire?

  • Because the technology is always evolving and you will want the latest designs and other elements that have proven the safest.
  • Because materials wear out: Straps and materials eventually fray or rip, and instructions printed on the seat and straps will fade or fall off.
  • You may no longer be able to get replacement parts or duplicate manuals if you have misplaced the original instructions.

If you want to buy a used car seat, it is urgent that you check out that seat’s history. If it has been in a crash, it needs to be replaced – your child will not be safe. So, if you are sure you cannot afford a new car seat, buy one from a friend who bought it new, can vouch that it has never been in a crash, and can share information about wear and tear. (Checking the expiration date on a used car seat is even more important than on a new one.) If you shop for car seats at a thrift store or yard sale or over the Internet, you are taking a chance – one that risks your child’s life. 

Armed with a shiny new child car seat, parents quickly find that installing it can be a baffling task. All those slots, all those straps, all those buckles – puzzle pieces that must fit together so that the seat doesn’t move. What’s a parent to do? 

New parents struggling with a child car seat are fodder for numerous jokes and humorous anecdotes.  A recent New York Times article tells the story of a Maryland Ph.D. who, after

struggling for two hours and failing to install two rear-facing car seats in his minivan, had to drive to a local dealership for tutoring from the local fire department.  His highly-educated-scientist-fails-at-simple-task story is amusing – until you know that:

  • Car crashes are the number one cause of death for children 13 and under, and
  • Three out of four car seats designed to protect children are not installed properly. 

Safe Kids Worldwide, a global organization dedicated to preventing injuries in children, offers guidelines for making sure your child’s car seat is installed correctly in any vehicle. Here is a simple checklist:

  • Read the manual and follow the step-by-step instructions faithfully, because not all seats or installation procedures are the same. At each step, check to make sure you have installed the seat correctly, especially in securing the top latch for forward-facing seats. For both forward- and rear-facing seats, either the lower anchors or the car’s seat belt will be safe. But a forward-facing seat without the top latch secured is dangerous.
  • Once the seat is installed, shake it at the base to see if it moves. If it moves more than an inch from side to side or forward and backwards, it’s installed wrong. Pediatricians say that forward movement is especially dangerous because, in a crash, the child’s head could hit the back of the front seat and sustain critical brain injury.
  • Finally, conduct what SafeKids calls the “pinch test,” making sure the harness is looped through the right slots (check the manual!) and is tightly buckled.  Place the chest clip at armpit level and pinch the strap at the child’s shoulder. If your pinch reveals extra webbing, then you have not tightened the harness properly.

Fortunately, there is lots of help available for installing your child’s car seat correctly.

Safe Kids sponsors educational workshops, child safety events, and car seat checkups nationwide. You also can access the NHTSA’s child car seat inspection station locator to find a site near you where certified technicians will install your car seat for free. Locations across the country range from Babies “R” Us stores to AAA offices to local fire-rescue stations, sheriff’s offices, and hospitals.

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