Is Your Child Seat Installed Properly?
You might be surprised to learn that more than two-thirds aren't. Here's why, and how you can fix the problem.
Once the straps on a child seat are snugged up tight, most parents drive away confident that their son or daughter is safe and secure. But here's a startling fact that should shake that confidence: Seven in 10 child safety seats are being misused.
Results of a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study of 5,000 children riding in vehicles found that more than 70 percent were in seats that were either inappropriate for the child or were incorrectly installed, even though 95 percent of the parents thought their child was secured safely. The agency is pushing to raise awareness of this issue during its annual Child Passenger Safety Week campaign, which started Sept. 19. The campaign ends with National Seat Check Saturday on Sept. 25, when certified Child Passenger Safety technicians will provide free child-seat inspections and advice at locations across the country. Parents can find a CPS inspection site by calling toll-free: 1-888-327-4236. Many of these sites also offer inspections year-round.
CPS technicians see many of the same issues over and over, says Patti Dickey, director of the Portage County CPS Association. The nonprofit organization, based in Stevens Point, Wis., was contracted by the state to train CPS technicians, a program that takes up to four days to complete. Dickey has been working in the field since 1982, starting as a volunteer for an agency that rented car seats to parents. Today her organization inspects more than 500 child seats a year. Her local observations of seat misuse exceed the NHTSA estimate.
"I think that 90 to 95 percent of the seats we look at display some sort of misuse," Dickey says. "Some is more obvious than others, and not all car seats will fit properly in all vehicles." Dickey helped compile this list of the five most common child safety seat issues.
Common installation errors include leaving the seat loosely installed, or installed with the wrong belt path through the seat. Sometimes seat belts are not locked in their retractor, or the anchor points are not attached correctly. The seat should not shift more than one inch side-to-side or front-to-back when pulled near the lower strap anchors. Seats can be tricky to install, especially in older vehicles, says Dickey, but all the information parents need to do the job right is located in the child seat owner's manual, and in the owner's manual of the vehicle. Too many parents simply don't read the directions, and get it wrong.
Seat Selection Errors
Check to see if the seat is out-of-date, has been recalled or is the wrong size for the child. Children grow through four stages of seat restraint, as outlined at the NHTSA Web site. The child progresses through each based on age, weight and height, from a rear-facing infant seat to a forward-facing child seat to a booster seat and, finally, to the seat belts in the back seat.
Dickey says installing the child seat in the center of the back seat is generally the safest location because it positions the child farthest from side impact, and away from the windshield and dashboard. That center location is not always practical if the vehicle has to carry two child seats or other passengers frequently. In that case, the side position in the rear seat is acceptable. Children 12 and under should never be placed in the front seat, Dickey says, to keep them away from powerful airbags and from impact with the dash and windshield.
The harness straps that secure the child within the seat may be too loose or routed through the wrong slots so that they do not fit the child correctly, or the straps may be frayed or otherwise damaged. All seats have a harness retainer clip that must be adjusted to armpit level.
Dickey says people most often lose the installation instructions when the seat is borrowed or being used for a second child. There should be a label on the seat that lists the manufacturer and model number, which can be used to download the manual from the manufacturer's Web site. There may also be a number to call and order a replacement copy.