kids in carGreat strides have been made in the world of child safety seats. However, the laws and the seat specifics can be confusing. Here are the basics you need to know to keep your little one safe.

Child Seat Laws

Across the U.S., drivers are required to secure their children using age-appropriate safety restraints.

In fact, according to the Governor’s Highway Safety Association (GHSA), the only state that does not require an older child to ride in a booster seat is North Dakota.

Otherwise, drivers are required to ensure children are secured in a proper safety seat until they are tall enough to safely use an adult seat belt.

The penalties for breaking child safety seat laws vary from state to state. Fines start as low as $25 and can go up to $500, and a driver can be fined for each child. In addition, most states will add points to a driver’s record, which they would need to handle just like any other minor traffic violation. 

Choosing the Right Seat

Car crashes are the number one cause of death for U.S. children under the age of 12 years old, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

A child who is properly fastened into the correct style of car seat for their age, height, and weight, has a better chance of staying protected in the event of a crash. Rear-facing infant seats, for example, cradle a small child to protect their tender head and neck from dangerous jarring upon impact. Front-facing car seats for toddlers offer side impact protection as well as a safety harness to minimize your child’s movement if your car is hit. Booster seats are even designed to grow with your child these days, raising them up and placing the seat belt across their body in an ideal way to keep them secure and prevent unnecessary injury.

Here’s a quick reference guide to help you decide which type of seat you need at each stage of your child’s growth:

Rear-facing infant carrier or car seat: Birth up to 12 months. The rear-facing design secures a small child in with a harness and is designed to prevent injury to the neck and spine. Do not turn your child around or put them in a front-facing car seat before age 1, as their neck muscles are not yet strong enough to be in this position. If your child outgrows an infant carrier, move them into a larger rear-facing car seat that you can then turn around when they meet the age/height requirements.

Forward-facing car seat: Ages 1-7 (at minimum). A forward-facing seat is designed to grow with your child. Children are secured with a harness and tether that will minimize their forward movement in a crash. In addition, padding is added around the sides of the seat to prevent additional injuries and to keep your child secure. This is a very safe way to travel and parents should keep their child in a forward-facing seat until they reach the top height or weight limit outlined by the car seat manufacturer.

Booster seat: Ages 8 and up. Children who have outgrown a forward-facing seat are ready for a booster. Many seats in this category can be convertible, with head and neck protection that can be removed when a child is larger and stronger. The booster will position the seat belt across a child’s upper thighs, not their belly, and the shoulder strap will cross their chest and shoulder, not their neck or their face. A child should remain in a booster until their legs are long enough to bend naturally across the front of the back seat, and the shoulder and lap belt sit in the correct position.

How to Properly Install a Car Seat

Car seats should always be placed in the back seat of a car. You should always consult both your vehicle’s owner’s manual, as well as the directions supplied by your car seat manufacturer, in order to accurately install a safety seat. Newer vehicles come with Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) systems designed to secure a car seat and increase its stability.

The number one danger children face when it comes to car seats is that it is not installed properly. The NHTSA offers instructional videos to help you get the seat in correctly. In addition, you can visit a car seat inspection station to have an expert ensure your seat is positioned properly. The NHTSA offers a car seat inspection station locator on their site.   

Common Car Seat Mistakes

Got your car seat? Check! Installed it properly? Check! Now what? Even drivers who have done their homework could still face some safety pitfalls. Here is a short list of ways to ensure your child is traveling as safely as possible.

Secure the straps properly for a child’s height: Make sure the harness straps are level or just below your child’s shoulders.

Place the harness clip in the right spot: The chest clip on an infant or forward-facing car seat needs to be positioned evenly with the child’s armpits, not any higher and not any lower.

Minimize seat movement: The car seat should have less than 1 inch of movement in all directions. Any more and it’s not secure.

Tighten up the straps: There should be no more than 2 inches of space between the harness straps and your child’s body. Straps should sit flat with no twists.

Child safety seats are vital to protecting your child. However, every passenger — big or small— should always be buckled in for the safest ride possible.