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UC Davis Medical Center

UC Davis Medical Center

How savvy are you about keeping your child safe in the car?

Checkup on Health

infant in car seat
For a car seat to do its job, it has to be the right one for a child’s age and size. Car seats must be installed properly to provide adequate protection, and they must be adjusted to fit the child securely.

Posted Aug. 17, 2011

Whether it’s packing up the car for a weekend camping trip or driving to a favorite theme park, summer road trips can be the highlight of a family’s year. Safety should always be a top priority for parents when driving, but travelling with younger children means taking a few extra minutes to ensure they are as safe as possible in the car.  

Despite the best intentions of parents and caregivers, many car seats are misused, according to U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA). Nearly three out of  four child safety seats are being used improperly and may not provide adequate protection during a crash.

Every day in 2009 in the United States, an average of two children age 12 and under were killed and an average of 340 were injured in motor vehicle traffic crashes as occupants of passenger vehicles. For children below 12, it is the leading cause of death. 

Attention to detail

So what are parents doing wrong?  For one, the harness straps may not be fastened tightly enough.  Or the seat may not be firmly attached to the vehicle. Or a young child might be seated in forward-facing car seat when he or she is still too young and should still be riding in the rear-facing position. 

Or worst of all, a child may not be seated in a car seat or seat belt at all.

For a car seat to do its job, it has to be the right one for a child’s age and size. Car seats must be installed properly to provide adequate protection, and they must be adjusted to fit the child securely.

According to Christy Adams, UC Davis injury prevention coordinator, here are some recommendations to help parents and caregivers make those important decisions about which car seat to use at every stage of a child’s development to keep children as safe as possible.

  • For the best possible protection, your child under age 1 and 20 pounds should always ride in a rear-facing car seat. There are different types of  rear-facing car seats: infant-only can only be used rear-facing. Convertible car seats typically have higher height and weight limits for the rear-facing position, allowing your child to be rear-facing for a longer period of time.
  • Your child should remain in a rear-facing in convertible car seat until he or she reaches the top height or weight limit allowed by your car seat’s manufacturer.  This may result in many children riding rear-facing to age 2 or older.  Once your child outgrows the rear-facing car seat, your child is ready to travel in a forward-facing car seat with a harness.
  • Keep your child in a forward-facing car seat with a harness until he or she reaches the top height or weight limit allowed by your car seat’s manufacturer (many harnesses have weight limits to 65 pounds). Once your child outgrows the forward-facing car seat with a harness, it’s time to travel in a booster seat.
  • Keep your child in a booster seat until he or she is big enough to fit in a seat belt properly. For a seat belt to fit properly, the lap belt must lie snugly across the upper thighs, not the stomach. The shoulder belt should lie snugly across the shoulder and chest, not the face.

Things to remember

  • Select a car seat based on your child’s age and size, choose a seat that fits in your vehicle, and use it every time.
  • Always refer to your specific car seat manufacturer’s instructions, and read the vehicle owner’s manual on how to install the car seat using the seat belt or LATCH system.
  • To maximize safety, keep your child in a car seat for as long as possible, as long as the child fits within the manufacturer’s height and weight requirements.
  • Keep your child in the back seat at least through age 12.

More resources

  • Visit the UC Davis Trauma Prevention and Outreach program's car seat safety page.
  • Be sure your car seat is installed correctly. Contact Cathy Morris, the UC Davis Trauma Prevention Program's child passenger safety coordinator, at 916-734-9784 to schedule an appointment.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics offers more child passenger safety information at www.aap.org..
  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also offers child passenger safety information at www.nhtsa.gov/Safety/CPS..