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5 deadly mistakes parents make with child car seats

child car seat mistakes

Parents often make deadly mistakes when installing child car seats. A 2001 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that in 72 percent of nearly 3,500 inspections, child car seats were misused in a way that could increase a child's injury risk during a crash.

insuranceQuotes spoke to Safe Kids Worldwide, an organization that conducts more than 100,000 child car seat inspections each year, and other car seat safety experts to determine the most common mistakes and how to avoid them.

Mistake No. 1:  Using the wrong car seat.

One of the most common mistakes parents make with child car seats is using the wrong size. According to the NHTSA, you should select from four types of car seats based on your child's age and size:

  1. Rear-facing car seats (birth to 3 years old; 0-20+ lbs).
  2. Forward-facing car seats (3 to 7 years old; 20-40+ lbs).
  3. Booster seats (7 to 12 years old; 40-100 lbs).
  4. Seat belts (7 to 13 years and beyond; 60 lbs. and beyond).

Importantly, you should consider age and size (and height and weight) when selecting a car seat. The age and weight groups listed above are simply guidelines.

"A real concern is the number of parents who move their child to the next stage of car seat prematurely," says Grainne Kelly, founder of the BubbleBum inflatable car booster seat.

Another important factor to consider is the expiration date of a car seat, which can be found on the label. Most car seats expire after six years. If it's past the expiration date, it's time to buy a new one.

Mistake No. 2: Installing the car seat in the front.

The NHTSA recommends that all children younger than 13 should ride in the back seat. And even though no car seat should ever be installed in the front seat, this is still one of the most common mistakes Safe Kids Worldwide inspectors see when they conduct inspections.

Riding in the front seat is unsafe for a couple important reasons. First, a child can more easily be thrown from the vehicle (or the windshield) in a head-on crash when riding in the front. Secondly, air bags can cause severe head and spinal injuries to children.

Mistake No. 3: Installing the car seat the wrong way.

Another common mistake is installing the car seat in a forward-facing direction when it should be rear-facing.

"Even if you install a car seat correctly and secure a child properly in a harness, having them facing forward can be harmful in a crash," says Allana Pinkerton, certified child passenger safety instructor for Diono, a major car seat manufacturer.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the NHTSA and Pinkerton all agree children should be in rear-facing seats until they're at least 2 years old.

A 2007 study in the Injury Prevention journal revealed that children under age 2 are 75 percent less likely to die or be severely injured in a crash if their seats are rear-facing.

Mistake No. 4: Car seat is too loose.

If your child's car seat is too loose at the base, then there's a greater risk of it breaking free in a crash.

To prevent this, Lorrie Walker, manager and technical adviser for road safety at Safe Kids Worldwide, recommends giving your car seat a good shake at the base once it’s installed.

"If it moves more than an inch side-to-side or front-to-back, then it's too loose," she says.  

If you're having trouble tightening the base, you may want to try a new location in the car. Sometimes the car seat and the vehicle seat may simply not be a good match.

Mistake No. 5: The harness is too loose.

Another common mistake is leaving the harness (also known as the safety straps) too loose.

The harness serves two main purposes: It helps keep your child from being ejected from the car in a crash and it also helps distribute the force of the crash over a wider area of the body, which can help prevent injuries and death.

To correctly fasten the harness, Walker suggests the following steps:

  1. Make sure the harness is tightly buckled and attached to the correct slots (check the car seat manual).
  2. Adjust the chest clip so it's at armpit level.
  3. Pinch the strap at your child's shoulder. If you can pinch any excess webbing, it's too loose.

Another common mistake related to the straps is when kids wear puffy jackets that allow for too much give in the straps. If your child has a puffy coat make sure to remove it before strapping them in, or keep a smaller coat in the car that won’t affect the straps.

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