4 Things to Know About Child Safety in Vehicles

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details of child car seat with baby inside, seatbelt and safety

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, car accidents are a leading cause of child death in the United States. Among the children killed in car accidents in 2019, almost 40% weren’t wearing seat belts. In 2020, there were more than 600 child occupants who were under the age of 13 and died in traffic crashes, with 211 of them being unrestrained and many others being inadequately restrained. 

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, car seats reduce the risk of deadly injuries by 71% for infants. Infants are children younger than a year old. They reduce the risk of a fatal injury by 54% for toddlers between the ages of 1 to 4. 

The following are some of the most important things to know about car seats, booster seats, and child restraints when they’re passengers in vehicles. 

1. Using Rear-Facing Car Seats

Infants and toddlers should always be in rear-facing car seats until they’re the maximum height or width that’s allowed by the manufacturer. A lot of seats are convertible, so children can ride while being rear-facing for two years or possibly more. 

If a child outgrows the rear-facing height or weight limit for their seat, then they should transition to a forward-facing seat that has a harness. A child should stay in this seat for as long as possible, as indicated by the manufacturer’s height and weight limits. Many of these seats can accommodate kids who are up to 65 pounds or more. 

Rear-facing-only seats will usually accommodate infants who are 22-35 pounds and anywhere from 26-35 inches. They are small with carrying handles, and they typically have a base that you can leave in the car. They should only be used for travel and not for sleeping or anything else outside of the vehicle. 

A convertible seat is used rear-facing initially and then converted to forward-facing when a child is large enough. Convertible seats are bulkier and don’t have separate bases. They’re meant to stay in the car, and they have a five-point harness attached at the shoulders, hips, and between the legs. 

2. When to Use Boosters

School-aged children may ride in boosters if their height or weight is in excess of the limit for their forward-facing seat. The booster should be used to position the seatbelt until it fits properly. Many kids need to ride in a booster until they’re between the ages of 8 and 12 or until they’re around 4 feet 9 inches tall. 

Children under 13 should always ride in the backseat. 

Two types of boosters are the high-back and backless. They don’t come with a harness, but they’re designed to be used along with the lap/shoulder belt in a vehicle. A child has outgrown a forward-facing seat and may need a booster seat if they reach the top height or weight allowed for the seat that has a harness or their shoulders are above the top slots of the harness. Another indicator a child may need a booster is if the top of their ears is at the top of the seat. 

Boosters are meant to raise a child high enough, so the seatbelt fits properly over the correct parts of a child’s body. Most booster seats aren’t secured to the seat of the vehicle, but they’re just held in place by the child and the belt. 

When you’re using a booster seat, you need to make sure the lap belt is low and fits snugly against the upper thighs of your child. The shoulder belt should be off the neck, crossing the middle of the chest and shoulder. 

Both are high-back and backless boosters and are intended to reduce the risk of an injury if you’re in an accident, but high-back boosters are only meant for vehicles that have low seat backs or no headrests. A backless booster is fine for vehicles with high seat backs or headrests. 

3. Transitioning to Seatbelts

When a child is old enough and big enough for the seatbelt of a vehicle to fit them properly, they should always use both the lap and shoulder belt. 

A seat belt fits properly when it’s across your child’s middle chest and shoulder rather than their neck or throat. A child needs to be tall enough so that when they sit against the vehicle sit back, their knees are bent over the seat’s edge without slouching. They should be able to stay in this position comfortably for the trip. 

You should make sure your child isn’t tucking their shoulder belt behind their back or under their arms because this is leaving the upper body unprotected, and it’s adding more slack to the seat belt. Your child is at greater risk in these situations if there’s a crash or sudden braking. 

4. Common Mistakes

Some of the common mistakes parents make with car seats, which are one of the most important pieces of safety equipment you’ll ever use, include:

  • The car seat’s too loose in your vehicle. You shouldn’t be able to wiggle a seat around more than an inch. If you can, it needs to be tighter. 
  • The harness may be too loose on your child. If you can pinch the harness straps between your fingers when your child is in their seat, it’s too loose, and you need to tighten it. 
  • If you face your child forward too soon, then you’re exposing them to the potential that their head, which is relatively heavy compared to their body at this time, could catapult forward in an accident. 
  • The seat isn’t at the right angle. Your child’s seat needs to be at the proper angle to avoid their head flopping forward. 

Finally, you want to ensure the harness chest clip is at the right spot. The clip should be at the center of your child’s chest and even with their armpits. The clip is a way to ensure the straps are in the right place. If the chest clip is in the wrong location, it can slip off a child’s shoulders. If that happens and you’re in a crash, your child could be ejected from their seat. 

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