This week is Child Passenger Safety Week, and one of the things I learned while reading about this week’s events was that according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 75% of car seats are installed incorrectly. That’s three quarters of all car seats, and that is both scary and unacceptable. While I am no stranger to the complicated installation procedures for some car seats and have definitely installed a car seat incorrectly myself, there are a few steps that you can follow that will help ensure that your seat is installed properly.
To make sure that I am providing you all with good, valid information, I corresponded with Allana Pinkerton, who is a Child Passenger Safety Advocate at Diono (though notably, this post is not being sponsored) and she was able to give more information about why these steps are critical to installing car seats correctly.
Step One: Read the car seat manual
I cannot overstate the importance of this one. Almost everything you need to know is in the manual and not reading is setting yourself up for failure. Allana says, “be sure to read over the pages with warnings. While some things might be obvious, there is very important information on these pages you don’t want to miss. Check the table of contents for information pertaining to the seat; you might be surprised at other features on the seat!”
Step Two: Consult your car manual
You’ll find that both the car seat and the car itself have some rules about where and how things can be installed. Per Allana, “your vehicle gives specifics on where you can install a car seat, especially with the lower connectors that come with the car seat and where the top tether strap (comes with seat) can be connected. It also tells you how to lock your seat belt, if you choose this installation option.”
Step Three: Decide seating location
Statistically speaking, there is a slight safety advantage to installing a car seat in the middle seat of the car, however, if you can’t get a good installation there due to the way your seat is angled or just because you don’t feel comfortable installing with the seatbelt and prefer LATCH, the side seats are also safe when used properly. Allana adds that, “many things might be factored into this decision, especially if you have more than one child, older children who are dropped off in a car pool line at school or if you have any physical ailments that might hinder you getting your child in and out of the car.”
Step Four: Decide LATCH (Lower Anchors & Tethers for Children) vs. seatbelt
This was the first thing I did wrong when installing my son’s car seat- I didn’t know my car didn’t allow me to “borrow” the lower anchors from the two side seats to use in the middle seat. You can look at your car’s manual or consult a Car Passenger Safety Technician or instructor who may have a LATCH manual to see if your car and car seat allow this in the middle seat. Allana reminded me of another important point, that you should, “choose one or the other. Using both [seatbelt and LATCH] is not safer and most manufacturers do not allow the installation of both lower connectors and seat belt at the same time. You must follow the manufacturer’s instructions. You want to install the seat the way it has been tested. Don’t be creative!”
Step Five: Set recline, if needed
Especially when installing rear facing, getting the correct angle can be one of the trickier parts and many convertible seats have different recline options for the seat. Check and see what recline level your car seat has to be on for rear or forward facing before you install the seat.
Step Six: Follow manual instructions for seatbelt/latch installation
I don’t think we need to elaborate much here. Make sure you’re threading the belt or latch through the right path for rear or forward-facing and make sure your seat matches the images in your manual.
Step Seven: Check angle of the seat
Make sure you’re parked on even ground because that can impact the angle indicators and it can throw off your approximation of horizontal. Allana also says, “most seats come with a recline indicator, in the form of a bubble level, swivel circle or just a line, that shows you the correct recline, particularly infant and toddler rear facing car seats. Never use any other device to determine the correct angle of a car seat. Always use the one on the car seat and/or follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
Step Eight: Check for movement
I think this is probably one of the places where parents go wrong, myself included. I know that when my son was small, I was so scared because the back of his car seat moved side to side, but it was only after consulting with a CPST that I discovered that that was acceptable. Allana clarifies that point, saying, “check the belt path, where the seat belt or lower connector strap is holding the seat tight. It should move less than 1 inch side to side, back to front. Be sure to attach top tether strap on a forward facing seat and tighten. *A few rear facing seats have the capability to attach top tether rear facing.”
Step Nine: Check harness strap fit with child in car seat
Even if your seat is installed correctly, if your child isn’t in the seat properly, it doesn’t matter how well you installed the seat. A good way to check for harness tightness is using the “pinch test” outlined here. Allana also notes that “for a rear facing child, the shoulder harness straps should be coming out of the slot just below or at the shoulders. For forward facing, they should be at or just slightly above the shoulders. Harness should fit snug and comfortable, with no slack. They do not need to be so tight where it is making a mark on your child’s skin.”
Step Ten: Check your work
I’m just going to let Allana explain this one because she said it better than I can. “We hire specialist for everything for our children throughout their lives. Take the time to learn how to install your seat properly by a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician or Instructor. They will gladly help you and, most of the time, the service is free or a donation is accepted.”
Hopefully these tips can help make sure that more seats are installed properly and more children are safe in the car. If you want more information about Child Passenger Safety Week, check out the Safe Kids website for more information.