The safest car seat is the one that fits your child properly, is easy to use, and fits in your vehicle correctly.
Car seats are only effective if used correctly. NHTSA estimates that 3 out of 4 car seats are installed incorrectly.
All car seats rated by NHTSA meet Federal Safety Standards & strict crash performance standards. While all seats on the market are safe, they do differ in their ease of use in four basic categories:
- Evaluation of Instructions: Examines the content and clarity of the instruction manual for the restraint.
- Vehicle Installation Features: Examines the ease of using features that pertain to installing the child restraint in a vehicle.
- Evaluation of Labels: Examines the content and clarity of the labeling attached to the child restraint.
- Securing the Child: Examines the ease of using features that pertain to securing a child correctly in the restraint.
Again, these ratings assess how easy certain car seat features are to use, not crash worthiness.
NHTSA uses a five-star rating system to help consumers evaluate the four basic ease-of-use category ratings:
|= Excellent features on this child restraint for this category.
|= Above average features on this child restraint for this category.
|= Average features on this child restraint for this category.
|= Below average features on this child restraint for this category.
|= Poor features on this child restraint for this category.
|= Does not contain any features that require a rating.
Search NHTSA’s Ease-of-Use Ratings here.
In today’s stores, dozens of car seat options line the aisles. Prices, features and styles can vary dramatically. Rest assured that all car seats meet the same federal safety standards.
The best car seat is one that:
- Fits your child;
- Fits your vehicle;
- Fits your budget;
- And you will use correctly every trip!
Sounds easy, right? It’s harder than it looks! Despite parents’ best intentions, NHTSA estimates that 3 out of 4 car seats are installed incorrectly.
To find the right fit for your child, visit AAA’s Car Seat guide for up-to-date recommendations based on the age, height, weight and maturity level of your child.
To learn how to properly install your seat in your vehicle, enlist the help of a professional. Certified Child Passenger Safety Technicians pass rigorous training and will help teach you to install your car seat correctly. To find a free inspection near you visit seatcheck.org.
Car seats vary in price. The price you pay for your car seat is not a reflection on how much you love your child. Yet it is important to ensure the car seat has not expired and is not on the recall list. If cost is an issue, some jurisdictions offer subsidized car seats for individuals on public assistance. Contact your state CPS coordinator or fire department to find out if this is offered in your area.
And finally, make sure you buckle your child in correctly! Examples of common mistakes include not ensuring that the harness straps are (1) at the correct height for your child (2) tightened snugly (3) connected by a chest clip that is at armpit level.
For many car seats, you have two choices when installing your car seat – Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) or using the vehicle’s seat belt with the tether whenever possible. Both are equally safe when used correctly, and should never be used together, unless specified by the manufacturer.
LATCH, required as of 2002, was designed to increase the likelihood that caregivers could achieve a correct car seat installation more often than when using the seat belt. However, according to research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, that’s not always the case.
When choosing an installation method for your child’s car seat, the most important thing to remember is the weight of both your child AND the car seat itself. New regulations from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration require that the combined weight of the child and the seat cannot exceed 65 pounds when installing with the lower anchors. However, that doesn’t mean you can no longer use the seat – simply switch to a seat belt installation.
With either installation method, it’s important to remember the tether strap. This tether reduces forward movement of your child’s head and neck in the event of a crash or sudden stop.
For peace of mind, have your installation checked by a professional. Visit seatcheck.org to find a Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician near you.
The National Child Passenger Certification Training Program certifies people as child passenger safety technicians and instructors. Since the program began in 1997, more than 126,000 people have completed training and been certified as child passenger safety (CPS) technicians. They come from hospitals, police departments, fire departments, health departments, and traffic safety advocates like AAA. Many technicians are parents, many are volunteers, but they all have one thing in common: They care deeply about kids and want to make sure they’re safe.
CPS technicians and instructors put their knowledge to work by conducting child safety seat checks, where parents and caregivers receive hands-on assistance with proper use of child restraint systems and safety belts.
Safe Kids Worldwide is the certifying body for the National Child Passenger Safety Training Program. It administers all aspects of CPS certification and maintains a directory of nationally certified CPS technicians and instructors. Safe Kids provides course materials, registration and customer service to CPS technicians and instructors.
Interesting in becoming a technician? You can find more information here.
Use the search tool from the The National Child Passenger Safety Certification Training Program
Rear-facing car seats, which support the head, neck and spine, are designed to distribute the crash forces across the shell of the car seat.
To protect your child, keep them rear-facing for as long as possible, at least until age 2. Babies under age 2 simply aren’t yet strong enough to withstand strong crash forces without the extra protection that a rear-facing car seat provides. Turning a child under age 2 to a forward-facing position can result in head, neck or spinal cord injuries in the event of a crash or a sudden stop.
Don’t rush! Remember, each time you “graduate” your child to the next seat, there’s a reduction in the level of protection for your child, so keep your child in each stage for as long as possible.
1.Moving your child out of a booster seat too soon.
Consequence: Seat belts are designed to fit adults, not children. Improper seat belt fit can result in abdominal or neck injury in a crash or sudden stop.
Recommendation: Keep your children in booster seats until the seat belt fits them properly. Children should be able to sit with their back against the seat, knees bending at the edge of the seat and feet touching the floor. The lap belt should be positioned low across their hips and upper thighs with the shoulder belt across their chest and collarbone. Depending on your child’s growth and development, a seat belt typically fits correctly between ages 8 – 12.
2. Not installing the car seat tightly enough.
Consequence: If the seat belt or lower anchor connection is too loose, the car seat will not stay put, subjecting your child to greater crash forces.
Recommendation: The car seat should not move side-to-side or front-to-back more than 1 inch when tested at the belt path.
3. Harness straps too loose.
Consequence: If harnesses are too loose, your child will not be properly restrained in the event of a crash. This may subject your child to higher crash forces, or even ejection from the seat altogether.
Recommendation: Harness straps should lay flat and not have any twists. Be sure the harness is snug enough that you cannot pinch any extra material at the child’s shoulder.
4. Retainer clip (or chest clip) is too low.
Consequence: The retainer clip helps keep the child secure in the car seat in the event of a sudden stop or crash. When a retainer clip is too low, a child can come out of the harnesses or the hard, plastic retainer clip can cause internal damage to their abdomen.
Recommendation: Place the retainer clip at armpit level.
5. Turning your child forward facing too soon.
Consequence: Children in the second year of life are 5 times less likely to die or be seriously injured in a crash if they ride in a rear-facing car seat. Turning a child forward facing before age two can result in head, neck or spinal cord injury due to their underdeveloped bodies.
Recommendation: A child should remain in a rear-facing seat as long as possible until they reach the upper weight or height limit allowed by the car seat manufacturer. Once your child outgrows a rear-facing infant seat, switch to a rear-facing convertible car seat with higher height and weight limits.
6. Allowing a child under the age of 13 to ride in the front seat.
Consequence: Children under the age of 13 are typically not large enough to safely ride in the front seat and can be seriously injured by front passenger air bags in the event of a crash.
Recommendation: All children under age 13 should be properly restrained in the back seat.
7. Forgetting the top tether.
Consequence: Without the top tether, your child’s head and neck will be subject to excessive forward movement in a crash or sudden stop.
Recommendation: When recommended, always use the top tether with both LATCH or seat belt installations.
8. Adding additional padding, toys or mirrors to your child’s car seat.
Consequence: Using products that have not been tested with the car seat may interfere with how the seat was designed to perform in a crash. Loose items, such as mirrors, can also become a dangerous projectile in a sudden stop or crash.
Recommendation: Only use products that come with the seat or are recommended by the seat manufacturer. Be sure to secure all loose items in a vehicle trunk or storage space.
9. Installing a car seat using LATCH in the center rear seat of a vehicle (when not permitted by the manufacturer).
Consequence: Most vehicles do not support LATCH installations in the center rear seat. Using lower anchors intended for outboard seats could cause the system to fail and the car seat to be thrown in a crash.
Recommendation: Always read your vehicle owner’s manual and only use lower anchors in seating positions that are approved by the vehicle manufacturer.
10. Transporting unsecured, heavy items, including pets, in the vehicle.
Consequence: Loose items in the vehicle can become dangerous projectiles and seriously injure passengers in the car.
Recommendation: Secure items in a trunk, glove compartment or storage location. Properly restrain pets with approved devices.
11. Installing a car seat using both LATCH AND a seat belt.
Consequence: Installing a car seat with more than one system may put unnecessary stress on the car seat and affect its performance in the event of a crash.
Recommendation: In this case, two is not better than one. Install the car seat in approved seating positions with LATCH OR the seat belt. Do not use more than one system unless the car seat manufacturer and vehicle manufacturer permit it.
12. Wearing bulky coats/sweaters while buckled into a car seat.
Consequence: Unapproved padding, including coats and sweaters, placed behind or under the harness can compress in a crash, creating slack in the harness system.
Recommendation: Place blankets or jackets over the child after the harness is snug and secure.
Don’t rush! To protect your child, keep them rear-facing for as long as possible, at least until age 2. The old “1 year and 20 pounds” milestone is no longer the recommended standard.
Unfortunately, it takes time for state laws to catch up with best practice safety recommendations. All major safety organizations along with the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend this new guideline.
Children in the second year of life are five times less likely to die or be seriously injured in a crash if they ride in a rear-facing car seat. Turning a child under age 2 to a forward-facing position can result in head, neck or spinal cord injuries in the event of a crash. Babies under age 2 simply aren’t yet strong enough to withstand strong crash forces without the extra protection that a rear-facing car seat provides.
When your child outgrows their infant-only bucket seat, it’s time to use a convertible car seat – a seat that can be used in a rear-facing position, and when they’re older, in a forward-facing position.
When your child reaches the height or weight limit of the convertible seat, it’s time to switch to the forward-facing position.
Don’t rush to move your child to a booster seat before they’re ready. Each time you “graduate” your child to the next seat, there’s a reduction in the level of protection for your child. Keep your child in each stage for as long as possible.
Your child is ready for a booster seat when they have outgrown the weight or height limit of their forward-facing harnesses, which is typically between 40 and 65 pounds. Read your forward-facing car seat’s owner’s manual to determine height and weight limits, and keep your child in a harnessed seat for as long as possible.
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.
Don’t Skip a Step
- A child who has outgrown the internal harness or height limitations of a forward-facing child safety seat.
- Within the range of 40 to 80 pounds but under 4’9”. Within 4 to 8 years of age and is at least 35” tall.
- A child who cannot sit with their back against the vehicle seat with their knees bending at the edge of the seat cushion without slouching.
- A child who does not fit properly in the vehicle belt system.
Prior to Installation
- Be sure to complete and return your registration card to the manufacturer to be notified of any possible recalls.
- Always read the vehicle owner’s manual and child safety seat instructions prior to installing the booster seat in your vehicle.
- Belt-positioning boosters must be used with a lap/shoulder belt. A lap belt only does not provide upper body protection for your child. Shoulder belt retrofits can be completed in most vehicles that have lap belts only, contact your dealer for more information.
- A backless belt-positioning booster may be used in vehicles which have a head restraint present for your child. High-back boosters can be used in vehicles with or without head restraints present.
How to Use Your Booster Seat
- Remember, the safest place for all children 12 years old and under is the back seat!
- Place the booster seat on the vehicle seat. Once your child is sitting in the seat will fasten the lap/shoulder belt around him/her. Many models offer safety belt positioners to help keep the shoulder portion of the belt positioned correctly.
- Only install the belt-positioning booster seat with the LATCH or tether system, if allowed by both the vehicle and car seat manufacturer.
- The shoulder belt should never be placed behind your child’s back or under their arm.
A social issue your child may encounter while riding in a booster seat could be the embarrassment of still using a “car seat” in front of their peers. A few measures can be taken to help eliminate negative feelings towards booster seat usage.
- Teach your child the importance of safety at a young age and that booster seats are cool, perhaps pretend that it is a race car driver seat.
- If your vehicle seat has a head restraint where your child will be sitting, you may use a backless belt-positioning booster which will offer them the safety of a correctly fit safety belt without the perception of riding in a car seat, since it will not be seen from the outside.
1. Letting your child use a regular seat belt too soon.
Why it’s unsafe: Seat belts are designed for an adult and can cause seriously injuries if they don’t fit properly.
What AAA recommends: Use a booster seat until the adult seat belt fits properly with the lap portion of the belt fitting low across the child’s hips and the shoulder belt across their sternum and collar bone. Proper belt fit may not be possible in some cases until age 12 or 13.
2. Allowing children to place the seat belt under their arm or behind their back when using a booster seat.
Why it’s unsafe: Improperly worn seat belts can cause injuries! A seat belt placed under the arm can cause fragile ribs to break which can in turn cause additional injury. A seat belt behind the back eliminates upper body protection and can cause serious spinal injury or even ejection.
What AAA recommends: Make sure children wear their seat belt properly with their booster seat and remain in proper position the whole trip.
3. Skipping a booster seat when carpooling or riding with friends
Why it’s unsafe: Most crashes occur close to home and can occur at any time – even a one-time exception could result in serious injury.
What AAA recommends: Don’t compromise safety for convenience. Use a booster on every trip and make arrangements in advance when carpooling to ensure your child has their booster seat.
4. Using a low back booster in a seat without head rests.
Why it’s unsafe: Riding in a backless booster seat in a vehicle with no head restraint can cause head, neck and spinal injuries in a crash or sudden stop.
What AAA recommends: Make sure your vehicle has head restraints to protect your child before considering using a backless booster seat. If not, use a high back seat that offers head/neck protection.
5. Not buckling in empty booster seats.
Why it’s unsafe: Booster seats that are not in use can go flying in a sudden stop or crash and cause injury if they are not buckled in the vehicle.
What AAA recommends: Buckle up booster seats even when children are not riding in the car to keep yourself and other passengers safe.
Once your child outgrows a forward-facing child safety seat, they are not quite grown enough to properly fit in a safety belt, and should use a belt-positioning booster seat until they are at least 4’9″ and between 8 and 12 years old.
Children at this stage are not yet ready for adult safety belts, which are designed for 165-pound male adults. A belt which does not fit properly can ride up on your child’s stomach and cause internal organ damage or neck/head injuries.
Booster seats are “pre-crash positioners” that help raise your child up to position the lap portion of the safety belt across your child’s hips/upper thighs and the shoulder belt low across your child’s chest and collarbone allowing for proper protection. In fact, studies show that using a booster seat can reduce risk of injury in a crash by 45 percent over a seat belt alone.
Don’t rush! Each time you “graduate” your child to the next seat, there’s a reduction in the level of protection for your child, so keep your child in each stage for as long as possible.
Also, remember that the safest place for all children under age 13 is in in the back seat.
Many children are eager to leave their booster seats behind and sit in a seat belt like a “big kid.” Many state laws leave children vulnerable, allowing children as young as 5 to ride this way.
It’s important to remember that seat belts are designed for 165-pound men. They simply aren’t designed to fit kids – and can cause injury or death in the event of a crash if they don’t fit properly. A seat belt will properly fit a child when they reach 4’9” tall, typically between the ages of 8 and 12.
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.
Your child is ready to ride with a seat belt after passing the “Five Point Test”
1. Does your child sit all the way back against the seat?
2. Do your child’s knees bend comfortably at the edge of the seat without slouching?
3. Does the belt cross the shoulder between the neck and arm?
4. Is the lap belt as low as possible, touching the thighs?
5. Can your child stay seated like this for the whole trip?
If you answered “no” to any of the above questions, your child should still ride in a booster seat. If they pass the test, they’re ready for a seat belt.
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 and model good behavior. Make car safety a family habit!
To keep them as safe as possible, children under 13 should ride in the rear seats, even if they have graduated from a booster seat to a seat belt.
If a child must ride in the front seat, the vehicle seat must be moved back as far as possible. Caregivers should avoid putting car seats in the front passenger seat because of the presence of airbags. If the car only has two seats, caregivers should disable front passenger airbags before placing a child passenger seat in the front (check your vehicle’s owner’s manual). This should only be used as a last resort.
School buses are one of the safest forms of transportation in the United States, as they are designed with different safety features than other passenger vehicles. In fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation school buses found that school buses are approximately seven times safer than passenger cars or light trucks.
School buses are larger and heavier than most vehicles, and distribute crash force differently than cars. School buses also utilize passenger seat crash protection known as “compartmentalization,” which are flexible, padded, energy-absorbent, high seat backs in a narrow space that confine occupants in a crash. However, some smaller school buses (less than 10,000 pounds) are required to have seat belts.
Pre-school aged children should be restrained in child passenger seats when they ride a school bus. Children with special needs may also need a restraint system.
Make sure that there is enough room to install a car seat by checking the manufacturer’s instructions. Caregivers should avoid putting car seats in the front passenger seat because of the presence of airbags. If the car only has two seats, caregivers should disable front passenger airbags before placing a child passenger seat in the front (check your vehicle’s owner’s manual). NEVER place a rear-facing car seat in the front passenger seat with an active airbag. If a forward-facing child must sit in the front seat, push the seat back as far back as possible.
Make sure that there is enough room to install a car seat by checking the manufacturer’s instructions. According to most manufacturers, a car seat must have at least 80 percent of the base of the car seat supported by the vehicle’s seat, with no more than 20 percent hanging over the edge. Keep in mind some manufacturers require the base of the car seat to by 100 percent supported.
Never install a car seat on a truck’s side-facing jump seat, as car seats and booster seats are crash tested on forward-facing seats.
Under no circumstances are cargo areas to be used as child passenger seating. Children and adults can easily be thrown from cargo areas at even relatively slow speeds. Not only is it unsafe, but it may also be against the law in your state.