AAA Child Safety Seat Guide

Car Seat Safety: A How-To Guide

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death and injury for all children.  Child restraints, or car seats, reduce the risk of injury by 71% to 82% and reduce the risk of death by 28% in comparison to children in seat belts alone.   Booster seats reduce the risk of nonfatal injuries by 45% among 4 to 8 year olds.

All vehicle occupants need to be properly restrained by seat belts or child safety seats to prevent injury in case of a sudden stop, swerve or crash.  Seat belts and car seats contact the strongest parts of the body, spread crash forces over a wide area, help the body slow down and protect the brain and spinal cord.

Did you know 3 out of 4 car seats are installed incorrectly?

Before you install your car seat, be sure to read both the car seat instruction manual and your vehicle’s owner manual. Also consider having an expert check the seat. The service is free and only a step away. To find a certified technician, call (866) SEAT-CHECK or click here.

The best car seat is one that:

  1. Fits your child;
  2. Fits the vehicle;
  3. And you will use correctly every trip!

Research tells us that safety belts and car seats are the most effective devices in preventing serious injuries and deaths in vehicle crashes.  All 50 states and the District of Columbia have laws that require child seat use; however, numerous gaps and inconsistencies exist. AAA believes that closing loopholes in existing state laws and educating the public about proper car seat and restraint use are essential to preventing child passenger injuries and deaths.

For more than a century, AAA has worked to foster a safe environment for travelers through education, research and advocacy. Since its founding, AAA has been a leader in developing and supporting educational and safety programs for motorists, pedestrians, cyclists and children.

For more information on child passenger safety, contact your local AAA office.

 

 


The rear-facing position supports a child’s head, neck and spine and helps reduce stress to the neck and spinal cord in a crash. Children should ride in a vehicle’s back seat in rear-facing safety seats from birth until age 2, or until they reach their convertible seat’s upper weight limit, which should be around 35 pounds. Be sure both age and weight requirements are met before a child is moved to a forward-facing seat.

Installation tips

  • Rear-facing seats should be installed in the back seat of your vehicle. Never place a rear-facing seat in front of an active passenger frontal air bag.
  • The center seating position is ideal if it can be used, since it is the farthest from any point of impact.
  • The seat should be installed using either the LATCH system or vehicle safety belt, never both.
    • If using the LATCH system, buckle all unused safety belts to prevent the possibility of strangulation.
    • If using a safety belt, make sure the belt is locked and can hold the seat tightly. You should not be able to move the seat more than one inch in any direction when testing where the belt goes through.
  • Rear-facing safety seats should be installed in the recline mode to protect your baby’s breathing. Be sure to refer to the safety seat manufacturer’s degree recommendation.
  • Harnesses should be at or below your child’s shoulders. The harnesses should be snug and lie flat on your infant’s shoulders, and you should not be able to pinch any slack.
  • The chest clip should be positioned at armpit level, across your infant’s sternum. This protects soft tissue and helps keep the harness straps on your baby.
  • To prevent injury, secure any unused tethers when installing the safety seat.

Do not use any aftermarket accessories, such as mirrors and metal roller shades, and secure loose items such as purses, briefcases, toys and umbrellas, because these items could cause injury in a crash or sudden stop.


Children can ride forward-facing in a vehicle’s back seat once they have reached the upper weight (30 to 35 pounds) or height limit of their rear-facing convertible seat, which will typically be around age 2. It is safest to keep your child in a forward-facing seat with a harness until he or she reaches the seat’s maximum height or weight (40 to 65 pounds) limits.

Forward-facing seats include an internal harness system that keeps a child properly restrained and snug straps that limit forward motion. In the event of a crash, the forward-facing position provides for even distribution of physical forces over a child’s body.

Installation tips

  • Forward-facing seats should be installed in the back seat of your vehicle whenever possible.
  • The center seating position is ideal if it can be used, since it is the farthest from any point of impact.
  • The seat should be installed using either the LATCH system or vehicle safety belt, never both. Be sure to buckle unused safety belts to limit risk of strangulation.
  • If using the LATCH system, buckle all unused safety belts to prevent the possibility of strangulation.
  • If using a safety belt, make sure the belt is locked and can hold the seat tightly. You should not be able to move the seat more than one inch in any direction when testing where the belt goes through.
  • Never install anything under or behind the forward-facing safety seat.
  • Harnesses should be at or above your child’s shoulders when riding forward-facing. Check the car seat’s instructions to determine the correct harness slot that should be used.
  • The harnesses should be snug and lie flat on your child’s shoulders, and you should not be able to pinch any slack.
  • The chest clip should be positioned at armpit level, right across the sternum. This protects soft tissue and helps keep the straps on your child.

Do not use any aftermarket accessories, such as mirrors and metal roller shades, and secure loose items such as purses, briefcases, toys and umbrellas, because these items could cause injury in a crash or sudden stop.


Children can use a booster seat when they have outgrown the weight or height limit of their forward-facing harnesses, which will be between 40 and 65 pounds. Children at this stage are not yet ready for adult safety belts and should use belt-positioning booster seats until they are at least 4’9″ and between 8 and 12 years old. Safety belts are designed for 165-pound male adults, so it’s no wonder that research shows poorly fitting adult belts can injure children.

Installation tips

  • Belt-positioning booster seats should always be installed in the back seat of your vehicle.
  • Always use a lap/shoulder belt with your booster seat, and never a lap belt alone.
  • Place the booster seat on your vehicle seat.
  • Buckle the lap/shoulder safety belt around your child and the belt-positioning booster seat. Be sure to place the safety belt through the belt guides to help keep it positioned properly on your child.
  • The lap belt should be positioned low and tight across your child’s hips and upper thighs, not across the abdomen.
  • The shoulder belt should cross the chest and shoulder, across the sternum and collarbone.
  • Do not use any aftermarket accessories, such as mirrors and metal roller shades, and secure loose items such as purses, briefcases, toys and umbrellas, because these items could cause injury in a crash or sudden stop.

What types of injuries could occur if the safety belt doesn’t fit properly?

Out-of-position lap belts can cause serious injuries to the liver, spleen or intestines. Additionally, as a child’s upper body jack-knifes over a high-riding lap belt, the spine may pivot and fracture, resulting in paralysis.


 

When a child can sit with his or her back straight against the vehicle seat back cushion and knees bent over the seat edge without slouching, it is time to switch to an adult safety belt.

Safety seat tips

  • The lap belt should fit the child low across the hips and thighs, not across the abdomen.
  • The shoulder belt fits across the collarbone and chest. It should not cut into a child’s abdomen or neck.
  • Children under age 13 should be properly restrained in the back seat.
  • Teenagers should wear lap and shoulder belts in every seating position in a motor vehicle.
  • ALWAYS require safety belt use for all passengers.

Child safety seats can be obtained through a variety of resources.

  • All child safety seats meet the same Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, so you do not need to purchase the most expensive seat on the market. Many seats can be purchased at a discount through retailers.
  • Federal grant programs provide child safety seats to many states. Check with your local SAFE KIDS coalition or state department of transportation. They can direct you to local programs that may provide a free or reduced-cost seat when you attend an educational class or car seat check.
  • Do not to use a secondhand seat unless ALL of the following statements are true:
    • The seat has never been involved in a moderate to severe crash.
    • The seat has labels with the date of manufacture and model number, so you can check for recalls.
    • The seat has no recalls. (Some recalls can be fixed.)
    • The seat is less than six years old.
    • The seat has all of its parts and they work correctly.

The seat has an instruction manual.


Car seats work best when they are installed correctly. An expert can answer your questions and check your car seat to make sure it’s right. It’s free and only and step away. To find an expert near you, you can call 1-866-SEAT-CHECK or click here.

Why are car seats so difficult to install?

Installing car seats can be a challenge for parents.  It is important for parents to read the owner’s manual for both the car and the car seat before attempting the installation.  Parents should also be aware there are experts that can help.  Certified Child Passenger Safety Technicians are available across the country and can be found by contacting a local AAA office, or by calling 866-SEATCHECK or going to seatcheck.org.

What are some common mistakes that parents make when installing car seats?

With 3 out 4 car seats not properly installed, parents should be aware of common mistakes that are made when installing a car seat.  Common errors include not using the right seat for the child, having a loose attachment of the car seat to the vehicle, and not having the retainer clip at armpit height, which is the proper level.  For more information on proper car seat installation, visit SafeSeats4Kids.com

Guidelines recently changed to keep toddlers rear-facing for as long as possible.  Why is this so important?  What about their legs?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently changed their recommendation regarding how long a child should remain rear-facing in a car seat.  The new recommendation is that children stay rear-facing until they are at least 2 years old or until they reach the upper weight or height limit of their car seat.  Studies of crash data show one-year-olds are 5 times less likely to be injured in a crash if they are in a rear-facing car seat as opposed to a forward-facing seat.

Many parents worry that about their children’s legs in the rear-facing position.  Studies actually show that children have less injuries to their legs when they are rear facing.

Parents often re-cover car seats, or attach toys to car seats.  Why is that dangerous?

Parents should be wary about using aftermarket car seat products, such as new car seat covers and seat belt tighteners.  The manufacturers only test the car seat with the items that come with it in the box.  This means that any other items used in conjunction with the car seat have not been crashed tested with it and should therefore be avoided.

Parents often attach toys to their child’s car seat or place mirrors on the vehicle seat.  While these items may seem harmless they can become a projectile in the event of a crash.  Soft toys are the best choice while travelling in the car.

During the colder months, how can parents properly secure their children in car seats when wearing bulky winter coats?

Parents often bundle their children up in bulky coats in the winter to keep them warm and then place them in a car seat.  While this may seem like a good idea, it can be harmful to a child’s safety.  The safest thing for a parent to do is to buckle the child in the car and then add blankets or the child’s coat on top, that way you can ensure a snug fit of the car seat straps against the child’s body.

How can you tell your child is ready for a booster seat?  A seat belt?

Parents often wonder when their child is ready to move out of a forward-facing car seat into a booster seat.  A child is ready when they have reached the upper height or weight limit of their forward-facing seat, which is typically when they are between 40 – 65 pounds.

New recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics state that children should remain in a booster seat until they have reached 4’9” in height, which will typically be between ages 8 and 12.  To determine when a child is ready to move from a booster seat to a lap/shoulder belt it is important that parents do a visual test.

A few things to check for are the following:

  • Can the child sit all the way back against the vehicle seat?
  • Do the child’s knees bend comfortably at the edge of the vehicle seat?
  • Does the belt cross the shoulder between the neck and arm?
  • Is the lap belt as low as possible, touching the thighs?
  • Can the child remain in this position for the duration of the ride?

If a parent answers “no” to any of these questions, the child needs a booster seat to ride safely in the vehicle.

It is also important that parents remember that children are safest in the back seat until they reach age 13.

How can you be sure your car seat is installed properly?

Car seat experts are available to help parents by checking their car seat installation.  By contacting a AAA office, or by calling 866-SEATCHECK or going to seatcheck.org, parents can find Certified Child Passenger Safety Technicians in there area.

My state doesn’t require booster seats.  Are they really that important?

Almost every state now has a booster seat law; however, they differ greatly in what the exact requirements are.  Therefore, it is always best to follow best practice, which states that children should remain in a booster seat until they have reached 4’9” in height, which will typically be between ages 8 and 12.