Would it surprise you to know that more than 75 percent of all car seats are installed incorrectly? As child passenger safety technicians, we see a lot of common mistakes and we get a wonderful opportunity to work with families to make sure their most precious cargo — their child — is being transported safely.
This week is National Child Passenger Safety (CPS) Week so we are sharing common car seat mistakes we see, along with some simple changes that can help prevent a serious injury.
- Car seats that are too loose: If a seat is correctly installed, when you pull at the belt path, the seat should move no more than one inch from side to side or back to front. A child-passenger-safety technician trained in car-seat installation can show you how to get a correct and secure installation. Find a Safe Kids car seat check-up event or inspection station where certified technicians can assist.
- Straps that are too loose: The harness straps should fit snugly with no slack. If they are too loose, a child can be ejected from the seat. To test, using your thumb and forefinger, try to pinch the straps vertically at the collarbone. You should not be able to pinch any harness webbing. Also, avoid putting bulky clothing on children, such as a thick winter coat, before you put them in a car seat.
- Incorrectly positioned harness straps. They should be at or below shoulder level in a rear-facing seat or at or above shoulder level in a forward-facing seat. Be sure to check the straps often, as children grow quickly and the harness position can be easily overlooked.
- Not using the top tether: An Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study found that only half of car seats were attached by the top tether and most parents didn’t think it was necessary. Actually, the top tether is very important because it significantly reduces a child’s risk for head and other injuries in a crash. Check the vehicle and child restraint manuals for limits on tether and anchor use.
- Turning forward too soon: For the best protection, keep your baby in a rear-facing infant or convertible car seat for as long as possible, usually till about age 2. Follow the height and weight limit requirements you will find on the side or back of the seat.
- Placing toys, mirrors, or other items in or around a car seat: Avoid using any after-market products with your car seat. Rarely will they have been crash-tested with the seat and they may change how the seat works in a crash. These items also can become dangerous projectiles in a crash. Store all loose items in a console, pocket or the trunk. Some child-seat manufacturers make products specifically designed for the seats and come with the seat at the time of purchase.
- Using an old or second-hand seat: Used seats are unlikely to come with the manufacturer’s instructions (vital for correct installation), may be missing important parts, may have been involved in a crash (even unseen damage can affect the seat’s functioning), may fall short of current safety standards, or may have been recalled due to faulty design. In addition, car seats expire because their parts break down over time. To find a seat’s expiration date, look for a sticker on the seat with manufacturing date or expiration date. If you can’t find it, contact the car seat manufacturer.
- Getting rid of the booster too early: A seat belt that doesn’t fit properly can do more harm than good, penetrating internal organs, damaging the spinal cord or, if the shoulder strap is improperly fitted, seriously injuring the head. It is important to keep your child in the booster seat until the seat belt fits properly. Because seat belts are designed for people who are at least 4 feet, 9 inches tall, that may not be until your child is 12 years old or older.
Take a few extra minutes to check your car seats and make sure your little bundle of joy is safe! If further assistance is needed, and to ensure your seat is correctly installed, call to speak with a child passenger safety technician or to schedule an appointment.
Purnima Unni is the Pediatric Trauma Injury Prevention Program Manager for Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. She is a wife and mother of two girls, ages 16 and 13. She loves to cook, travel and watch murder mysteries. She is fluent in 3 languages and wishes she had a green thumb.