Car Seat and Passenger Safety

Unintentional injury is the leading cause of death in children, and most of these injuries are from automobile crashes. It is critical that everyone riding in a motor vehicle is buckled up correctly. Using a car seat, also known as child safety seat, is the best way to protect kids when traveling in a car.


Child safety seats and booster seats can greatly reduce the risk of a potentially fatal injury, yet many safety seats are used incorrectly. When choosing a car seat, following some general guidelines will help ensure a child’s safety.


Review each stage of car seat safety based on your child’s height and weight.

Infant seat

  • An infant seat should be used for babies from birth until the upper height and weight limits are reached. Check the manufacturer’s instructions for full recommendations.
  • Always read your seat and vehicle instructions regarding car seat installation and proper handle placement while traveling.
  • The seat must always be installed rear-facing.
  • Never place a rear-facing seat in front of an active airbag.
  • Harness straps should come through the slots in the back of the seat at or just below the level of your baby’s shoulder.
  • Keep the harness clip at armpit level.
  • Always keep the harness strap snug. You should not be able to pinch any of the harness straps WITH You should not be able to pinch webbing between your fingers at the shoulder. Infant seats are designed for travel, however the baby must always be correctly secured in the harness while sitting in the car seat whether inside or outside of the car.
  • Check the recline indicator on the seat for proper position. The baby’s head should not be able to fall forward from the back of the seat. If the head falls forward, the baby’s airway to become blocked.
  • Read the car seat instructions carefully to ensure proper placement of the car seat’s handle while in the vehicle.

Rear-facing convertible

These seats typically can be used for children from 20 to 40 pounds. Initially, they may not be as convenient as an infant seat, but if the harness fits correctly on the child it can be used.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children ride in a rear-facing seat until they have reached the upper height and weight limits recommended by the car seat manufacturer. 

  • Read the labels on the seat to see the weight and height limits for your child now and for his or her growth later.
  • Keep your child rear-facing in this seat until he or she reaches the seat’s upper weight and height limits. Most seats will accommodate children up to 40 pounds.
  • Continue to keep the harness snug and at or just below shoulder level. Keep the harness clip at armpit level.
  • Put the recline adjuster in the appropriate position for arear-facing seat.

Forward-facing convertible 

Adjust the following to change a rear-facing seat to forward-facing:

  • Change the seat’s recline adjuster to the upright position.
  • Adjust the harness straps to be at or slightly above the child’s shoulders.
  • Use the top tether strap located behind the seat. Read the vehicle’s instruction manual to find the correct anchor to attach the tether strap.

Toddler car seat/belt-positioning booster seat 


Toddler seats are always forward-facing seats. Read the label for minimum and maximum weight limits. They have a full harness (with a noted weight limit) that can be removed for use as a booster seat. The booster seat will have another weight limit.

  • Keep your child in the full harness until the upper weight limit for the harness has been reached (read the label on the seat).

Belt-positioning booster seat 

After your child has reached the upper weight limit of his or her harnessed seat, you can either remove the harness for use as a booster seat or, if you are moving from a forward-facing convertible seat, you will need to purchase a booster seat.


Seat belts are not designed for people under 4 feet, 9 inches tall, and the belts will not lay over the bony structures properly without a booster seat. Typically a belt-positioning booster seat will fit a child from age 4 to 10.


  • Children younger than age 4 should never ride in a booster seat, as they are not developmentally mature enough. At this age, they need a full harness to ensure they ride safely.
  • Not all boosters are the same. Some fit your child and vehicle better than others. Choose your booster carefully.
  • The shoulder belt must be adjusted to lay over the middle of the shoulder, and the lap belt must be routed appropriately using the booster seat directions.
  • Your child can have much more movement in a booster seat, so it is important to ensure the belts snugly fit his or her body.

Lap/shoulder seat belts 

When your child has reached the upper limits of the booster seat, he or she then can graduate to the seat belt system. One of the most common mistakes is moving your child out of a booster too early.


To determine when your child is ready for a seat belt, follow these recommendations:

  • The child’s knees bend naturally over the vehicle seat while seated against the back of the seat. If they don’t do so comfortably, your child will slouch down. This will cause the belt to ride too high over the abdomen/stomach.
  • The child’s shoulder belt must lay over the middle, between his or her neck and arm, and the lap belt should sit on the upper thighs across the child’s hip bones.
  • The child should be comfortable enough to sit like this the entire ride.
  • Children age 14 and younger should ride in the back seat to avoid injury from the front seat airbag in the event of an accident.

Top 10 Car Seat Errors


  1. Harness is too loose

The harness is the critical part of the car seat that prevents your child’s forward movement. When the harness is snug against the child, it decreases the risk of head and neck injury.


  1. Car seat not tight/using the wrong belts

The majority of car seats are not tight because the person installing was unaware of how the seat belts work with the car seat. There are two ways to secure a car seat in the vehicle. The seat belt can be used in any seating position, but it must be locked to hold the seat securely. The other option, available since 2002, is the LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) method. This system is explained in your vehicle manual. The seat attaches by hooking the designated straps to a metal bar in the bottom of the seat. The strap also must be pulled tightly so the seat does not move in any direction more than an inch at the belt path. The tether is a strap with a hook on the back at the top of all forward-facing seats. In vehicles made since 2000, there is a designated anchor location.


  1. Chest retainer clip is not at armpit level

The plastic pieces that hold the harness straps together are pre-crash positioning devices. In a crash without the correct use of the retainer clip, the harness could slide off the shoulder. In order for the harness straps to perform adequately, the retainer clip must be in the correct position at the armpit.


  1. Child faces forward too soon

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children ride facing the rear of the car until 30 to 40 pounds in weight. Seats on the market now will allow children to ride rear-facing until they weigh 30 to 40 pounds.


  1. Riding in a recalled car seat

Many recalls are related to a car seat’s safety features. Always fill out the manufacturer’s card to be notified of any recalls.


  1. Child is too heavy for the seat

You can find the weight and height limits on the stickers on your car seat.


  1. Seat is too old

The Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association recommends that seats be discarded after six years. Many seats now are marked with an expiration date. All safety experts recommend using a seat that is less than 10 years old.


  1. Inappropriate padding in the car seat

There should never be any extra padding, blankets or infant head supports that go behind or under the child. Blankets can be on the sides, around the head or at the crotch, but should never interfere with the harness position.


  1. Using a secondhand seat

Buying a used car seat may mean not knowing the history of the seat, whether it has been in a crash, or if it is missing instructions or mandated stickers. Car seats are tested only for one car crash and should never be used after a crash.


  1. Unused seat belts are not buckled

If you are using your vehicle’s Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) system to install a forward-facing car seat, the child may be able to reach the unused seat belt. Always remember to buckle the unused belt behind the seat before installing the seat with the anchors.

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