How Tricky Are Car Seats?


(Special Note: you can get a free Slurpee today at most 7/11 stores!!!)

When it comes to safety features there are three standards or different ways to think about it:

  • The basic steps to avoid danger.
  • What the law requires or bans.
  • The best practices.

In the end, most of us use a mishmash of all three depending on the specific situation and based highly on our perception of what’s dangerous.

When it comes to car seats, most of us would agree that a best practice standard is in order, but what’s available for sale, state by state, is based instead on local law. Most of us don’t take the time to vet our state laws, instead assuming that if you can buy it in a reputable store it’s probably, “safe.” However, you’d be surprised by how many states have laws that fall far short of a best-practice standard, while others actually wastefully exceed it.

South Dakota is an example of falling short of best practice by not even having a booster seat law at all. But not to pick on them too much, Missouri, Connecticut, and New York don’t have laws requiring “proper use.” This means that if an adult puts a child in a seat not designed for their weight or height the adult can’t be held responsible.

But to be fair, sometimes draconian laws can be counterproductive. The absolute best practice can be expensive, and impractical to a point that officers are handing out tickets to loving parents who find it too burdensome to fully comply. It’s actually impossible to make a car safe at all times for all occupants and therefor some laws are impractical.

A good example of this is a Kentucky law that passed in 2015, that’s so poorly written it makes it technically illegal for a child over 40 inches tall to use a five-point harness. The issue, as you’ll notice when you read on, is that 40 inches is an average height for a four-year-old who should be transitioning into a booster, but most boosters start when a child is 43 inches tall. This creates a potential year gap when your child can’t legally use either device. As a stop gap, Kentucky has circulated a pamphlet explaining that they won’t be enforcing the broken parts of the law.

Best Practices:

The following advice stems from the best practice recommended by experts at the NHTSA and at The American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP). It starts even before the baby is born. A pregnant woman should have her lap top belt under her baby bump. Some ingenious folks have invented a devise called a tummy shield which may prevent a woman from injuring herself using the seatbelt. (

Between birth and about age four a child must be in a rear-facing carrier which attaches to the seat belt. This is based upon the age at which a child’s neck bones will be strong enough to handle a crash the way an adult’s neck can. Now this is where we need to get practical. A child of average height for age four doesn’t fit backwards in most vehicles. A law requiring this would ban parents from buying almost every vehicle currently made. So a common sense compromise is made in most states requiring backward facing car seats from birth to age two.

Clearly the only answer to the rear facing issue is to leave your child rear facing as long as you can after age two.

The front facing seat begins with a harness which attaches at 5 points. The harness is best until they reach 50 lbs. However, in the most recent recommendations (Aug. 2018) AAP gives a lot of credence to the car seat manufacturers, since they are required to test the performance of their seats. We’ve found a bit of variety from one manufacturer to another. For example, if your child is born early, it can be difficult to find a car seat that rates itself for under 5 pounds.

When a child outgrows a 5-point restraint seat, a booster seat is recommended. Children should remain in a booster until 4’ 9” and 8 to 12 years of age.

5steptest-280x460Is it ridiculous to put your 12 year old in a booster? Well, yes! Here’s the actual reasoning behind it. If the seat belt restraint doesn’t land on a passenger’s body where it was designed to it can cause damage. It’s important that it doesn’t land across a child’s neck for obvious reasons. Isn’t there a better option than a booster seat? Sure, but it depends on your definition of the word, ‘better.’ A company called RideSafer makes a vest that a child wears, not unlike a life jacket, which positions the seat-belt correctly. There are other belt-positioning devises—none of which are really well known, and therefore largely ignored by agencies which write safety laws and recommendations.

The image to the left shows a “test” you can perform to graduate your child from a booster devise.


Of course it’s all out the window (bad pun intended) if you don’t correctly install a car seat. Many towns have classes on correctly installing a car seat, often put on by the fire department. These happened when NHSA published data about the number of injuries that occurred when a seat wasn’t installed properly.

Here’s a video by the Virginia MDV showing how to install a front facing child car seat.

Flying with Children

For those traveling in rented cars, items such as boosters and carriers can also be rented, which saves you the trouble of carrying them through airports. If you do need to fly with a car seat they now make car seat bags that make it much safer and easier to carry them. They’re easier because they have shoulder straps and safer because corralling all those straps and hooks inside a bag keep them from snagging on other passengers or worse, the escalator.

Although there is nothing wrong in buying a used car seat, most of the industry seems to be against it, maybe for obvious reasons!

The reality is that plastic degrades and after as little as six months many child seats are no longer considered by the manufacturer to be in the condition that safety tested. Most manufacturers consider the seats safe for up to two years, but that doesn’t stop them from lobbying state governments to outlaw buying/selling used car seats on the grounds that they might be expired. If you get a used car seat from say, your cousin, Craig, just be sure to check the expiration date which should be stamped somewhere in the plastic.

Buying a Car Seat

The biggest key to choosing a seat is actually if fits in your car. Another is if it’s easy to transfer from car to car, because you’re going to be doing that more often than you think. Some car seats even come with indicators which tell you if they are fitted incorrectly. Others come with additional padding to provide further peace of mind while a baby is newly born, which is removed as a child grows. Graco makes a 4 in 1 car seat which transitions from rear facing to front facing to booster. This one is a car seat that snaps onto a stroller so you don’t have to wake your baby up to transition out of a car. If you have ever had to sit in a running car because you don’t want to wake your baby up this could be a handy feature BUT by far the most important feature in seat is that it fits in your car.

Additional parts of the infant car seat include the canopy which is designed to protect the baby further as well as allowing them to sleep. How do you navigate the world of car seats? In the end, you do what you do with ever other aspect of raising a child—you ask people you trust. If you don’t know any other parents read reviews on line. Google at leisure and shop with ease, skip google in haste and regret at leisure or something like that.

I hope that you find the right car seat for you and that you don’t find it too much of a problem to install. As you can see it’s a complex subject.


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