Every year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sponsors a week-long event the third week of September called Child Passenger Safety Week. This year it starts on September 20th and culminates with National Seat Check Saturday on September 26th. (If you didn’t already know, there are several inspection stations with certified car seat installers that will check your child’s car seat for free or a very low fee. Search in your area using this website.)

Child Passenger Safety Week

(Pixabay / MabelAmber)

In honor of Child Safety Passenger Safety Week, we’ve put together an article with commonly asked questions and frequent mistakes regarding car seats.

When did car seats become a “thing”?

Believe it or not, car seats actually started as a way for children to better see outside of the vehicle, instead of being safety devices. It’s true! If you look at old photos of cars around the turn of the 20th century, you’ll see little kids sitting in the back of the vehicle on a considerably higher elevation than their parents, and that’s because Dad’s “scenic route” apparently trumped safety. What makes that even scarier is the fact that cars could drive up to 40 mph at that time!

In the 30s and 40s, car seats began to resemble the seats of today, but their primary function was still so that the kid could see out the window better and the parent could see the kid better. It wasn’t until the 1960s that manufacturers started making car seats with safety in mind. Even though they were becoming more available to the public, car seats were composed of a lot of metal parts at head, stomach, and face level (which is dangerous under the best of circumstances). However, a semi-dangerous car seat was theoretically better than no car seat. It wasn’t until 1985 that legislators started passing laws requiring parents to use a car seat that adhered to certain safety standards in their vehicles. Before that, your kid could technically sit on someone’s lap all the way home.

Who should be in a car seat?

That’s a tricky question to answer because car seat manufacturers have different age and height cutoffs for each model that they put on the market. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends that you keep your baby in a rear-facing car seat at least to age one, but they strongly suggest that you keep your kid rear-facing for as long as his height and weight fall within the manufacturer’s guidelines. That means that your kid could be rear-facing until he’s pushing three years old! Once he’s hit the height and weight limit for rear-facing, switch him to forward-facing until he hits the height and weight limit for that mode. At that point, you can switch him to a booster seat still located in the back seat. As a general rule, anyone under 4’9” needs to ride in a booster seat regardless of age so that the seat belt will hit the right places in the event of an accident. Car accidents are the leading cause of death for young people, so even if using a booster is “uncool,” it could help save your child’s life.

What if my child doesn’t like to use the car seat/booster/seat belt?
The answer to that is a big, fat “IT DOESN’T MATTER!” Car seats will protect your child in a way that no other thing in the vehicle can, so it is imperative that he wears it whether he wants to or not. The first thing you can do is set the example by always wearing yours even if you’re only going around the block. If your child doesn’t want to wear a seat belt, don’t leave until it’s on. If it comes off any time during the ride, pull over immediately and refuse to move until it’s on properly. Doing this may make you late or be an inconvenience, but it’s well worth it in the end.

Where can I get my car seat checked?

There are several places you can get your car seat checked, so you’ll have to do a little research to find one closest to you. We mentioned this website in the first paragraph, but you could also search for a certified child passenger safety technician in your area. Either way you go, the person helping you will check for any recalls as well as secure the car seat correctly in your vehicle.

Do car seats expire?

Yes! Even though they won’t turn green and hairy or start smelling bad, they still expire just like that Tupperware of leftovers in your fridge. To find the expiration date, look for a sticker somewhere on the car seat that has a manufacturing date. That date plus six years is how long your kid can use that car seat.

And no – it’s not just a ploy from the car seat manufacturers to get you to buy more car seats. Think about it: even though car seats are made of some durable material, they live in an environment where the temperature and humidity fluctuate constantly, and they’re used daily – sometimes multiple times a day. Your plastic coffee mug wouldn’t hold up well for six years under those conditions, and you shouldn’t expect a car seat to, either. Also, advances in technology and design make the newer models safer and more effective, so that’s another reason to suck it up and buy a new one when the time comes.

Is it safe to use a used car seat?

This is a very touchy question to answer. The fact is that car seats are expensive! They range from a hundred bucks to over a thousand, and that can be a hard pill to swallow for anyone. While it may be safe for you to buy or inherit an unexpired car seat from someone you know and trust, we recommend purchasing a brand new one if you can’t verify the age and driving history of the seat. Car seats can lose their ability to protect your baby even if they were in a fender bender and the child wasn’t in the car. Not knowing if the seat was in an accident is a big risk to take, and it’s just better to purchase new.

What are some common mistakes?

  1. Harness Tightness: You should only be able to fit two fingers between your child’s chest and the harness. Anything more than that is too loose.
  2. Chest Clip: The chest clip should be at the armpits and not the ribcage or stomach.
  3. Harness Slot: For rear-facing car seats, your child should be using the harness slot at or below his shoulders, but for forward-facing car seats, it should be at or above his shoulders.
  4. The Angle: Most car seats nowadays have a little angle monitoring device on the side of the car seat to help you get it positioned correctly. Make sure that your car is parked on a level field before installing the seat, and periodically check to make sure that indicator is still within the correct parameters.
  5. Dangly Toys: There are a whole bunch of fun, dangly toys that you can hang from your child’s car seat, but you should avoid them. In the event of a collision, you don’t want those objects flying toward your baby’s face at high speed.
  6. Securing to the Vehicle: The car seat should be secured tightly enough that you can’t move it more than an inch in any direction.
  7. Puffy Clothing: Utah gets downright chilly in the winter, but you still need to remove that puffy coat before you buckle your child in. You might need to start your car sooner or stash some blankets in the car, but buckling over a puffy coat is the same as using loose harnesses.
  8. Registration: It may be a hassle to take that extra step and register your car seat, but doing so means that you’ll get updates on any recalls to the product.

Child Passenger Safety Week gives those of us who drive with children in our vehicle a great excuse to evaluate our car seats and car seat usage. Don’t let this year’s observance pass you by without taking the chance to focus on critical life-saving measures.

And just as you need to make sure your child’s car seat is safe, you should also make sure that your vehicle is in tip-top condition before you load it up with the precious cargo of loved ones. Stop by any of our Utah auto repair shops for an inspection by our ASE-certified technicians.