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Travel Has Changed, But Car Seat Safety Remains

COVID-19 may be changing commutes and limiting travel, but when you do hit the road it’s still important for your child to be riding in a vehicle safely. In a crash, everyone is safest when we are kept inside the vehicle and away from its interior surfaces. A car seat spreads crash forces over a large portion of the body and protects developing bones and muscles. The harness allows the body to slow gradually.

To keep your child protected in the event of a crash, here are some child passenger safety tips and reminders.

Finding the right fit

Any car seat sold in the United States must meet federal safety standards, but the best seat for your child is one that fits their age, size and developmental level. The car seat should fit your vehicle(s) and will be easy enough to use that it is used correctly every time. Other considerations include your budget and lifestyle. Much has changed during COVID-19 and it is worth considering whether these changes impact your car seat choices. For example, when travel becomes less restrictive, will you be taking plane trips and need a seat that is lightweight and portable?

To help you select a car seat for your budget and lifestyle, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) publishes Ease-of-Use Ratings (click on Car Seats).

Make changes as your child grows

Read the car seat manual and the labels on your seat to see what adjustments might be necessary as your child grows. For example:

  • For an infant, you might need to remove the seat’s body pillow, as these are often only for newborns and small babies. The recline angle may also need to be altered for a larger or older infant.
  • The harness may need to be moved. When a child is rear-facing, harness straps should be routed at or slightly below their shoulders. For forward-facing, harness straps should be routed at or slightly above the shoulders.
  • You might need to change your installation from lower anchors to the vehicle seat belt. All lower anchors are rated for a maximum weight of 65 pounds (total weight includes car safety seat and child). Always use the tether with a forward-facing car seat.

When your child outgrows their seat

Rear-facing seat

Your child outgrows a rear-facing seat when they reach the weight or height limits of the seat. There should also be at least one inch between the top of the child’s head and the top of the seat. If you have a rear-facing only seat, move to a convertible or all-in-one seat and keep it rear-facing as long as possible.

Forward-facing seat

Your child outgrows a forward-facing seat when the tips of their ears pass the top of the car seat shell, or the child’s shoulders pass the top harness slot or the child’s weight or height exceeds the limit stated by the car seat manufacturer.

Second-hand car seats

Obtaining a used seat sounds economical, but you need to know the history of the car seat. Was it ever in a crash? NHTSA recommends replacing a car seat after a moderate or severe crash, even if a child wasn’t in the seat at the time. Some manufacturers recommend replacing their seats after any collision. Lastly, most car seats expire 6 to 10 years from the date of manufacture. This is because materials can degrade over time and hidden damage could cause the seat to fail during a crash.

Learn more: How to safely clean a car seat  

Booster seats and seat belts

School drop-off and pick-up procedures are different and more complicated this year to accommodate physical distancing and screening requirements for COVID-19. For sake of ease, you might be wondering if your preschool or elementary school child is ready for a booster seat or is able to ride in the front seat. Here are the best practices:

It is best to wait until your child is 5 to 6 years old to use a booster. At that point, they should have the right physical development and be mature enough to wear the lap and shoulder belt properly – no slouching, leaning or putting the belt behind their head or under their arm. Both New York and Vermont require a car seat or booster for children until they are 8 years old, but a child older than 8 years old should continue to use a booster seat until the adult seat belt fits properly. It is safest to keep children under the age of 13 in the back seat.

Get a car seat “fitting”

Car seats can be complicated, and laws and best practices can change. Get current information and have your child’s seat checked in your vehicle by a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST).

While many car seat inspection stations are closed during COVID-19, some stations in New York and Vermont are still operating, including the BeSeatSmart Program.

Maureen Johnson, CPST-I, CSP is the Child Passenger Safety Specialist at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and University of Vermont Medical Center.

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