Car Seat FAQs

Browse below for answers to frequently asked questions about car seats.

Why are car seats important?

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 88-year-olds when compared to the seat belt alone.

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 slow down the body and protect the brain and spinal cord.

Visit AAA’s Car Seat Guide to find the right seat and fit for your child.

What is the child passenger law in my state?

For updated child passenger safety laws, please visit the AAA Digest of Motor Laws.

What car seat is safest?

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.
N/A= Does not contain any features that require a rating.

Search NHTSA’s Ease-of-Use Ratings here.

What car seat should I buy?

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. 

Where can I find car seat recall information?
What car seat installation method should I use?

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.

car seat tether

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.

What is a Child Passenger Safety Technician?

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.

Where can I find a CPS technician near me?

Use the search tool from the The National Child Passenger Safety Certification Training Program

Where can I find a car seat inspection station near me?
What are the biggest car seat mistakes?
Why is rear-facing safer than forward-facing?

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.

When should I switch from a rear-facing to forward-facing car seat?

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.

When is my child ready for a booster seat?

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.

Social Issues

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.
What are the biggest booster seat mistakes?
Why are booster seats safer than seat belts?

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.

When is my child ready for a seat belt?

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.

Remember:

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!

When can I put my child in the front seat?

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.

Why aren’t seat belts on school buses?

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.

How do I install a car seat in a sports car?

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. 

How do I install a car seat in a pickup truck?

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.