According to the CDC1, the most common cause of death for kids in the United States is injury from a motor vehicle collision. We spend time worrying about kidnapping, shark attacks, H1N1 and tick bites, but the van in our driveway is the real threat. I’m not a car seat fanatic by accident. Riding in the car is the most dangerous thing my kids do most days and it makes sense to make it as safe as possible. What does that mean to me?

  1. Kids must be their seats EVERY time. I feel like this is a given these days and yet just yesterday I drove by a car with four kids in the backseat who looked between 2 and 10 years old and none were restrained. None. Its a no-brainer. Kids in the seats and buckled. Period.
  2. Kids should be in age-appropriate car seats.
    1. Infants should be in rear-facing infant seats or rear-facing convertible seats.
    2. Toddlers should be rear-facing as long as possible – shoot for a minimum of 2 years old and 30 pounds. Yes, I know the law is 1 year and 20 pounds. I’ve got more to say about extended rear-facing than I can squeeze in this article but I’ll come back to it next time! For now, if you’ve got a kid you are ready to turn around, humor me and wait a week!
    3. Once your child is forward facing, keep them harness until you can’t stand it any more. Before, they can go to a booster, they need to be able to sit up straight, not fidget around or lean over and not mess with the seat belt. For most kids that’s at least 4. For many its more like 5 or 6.
    4. Finally, kids need to be in a booster until they pass the 5-step test. Details can be found at carseat.org2 but, in short, kids need to be able to sit all the way back against the seat with knees bent comfortably over the edge of the seat, belt across the shoulder and lap belt low on the hips. They need to comfortable enough to stay this way for the whole trip. Legal limits vary by state but in increasing number of states it is 8 years and 80lbs. Again, this is a minimum. Different kids come in different shapes. If your 100 pound 9 year old still doesn’t pass the test, they still need a booster. Remember that each step “forward” in car seats is a step down in safety – there is no rush.
  3. Kids under 12 should always be in the backseat. Airbags are designed for adult-sized people and can be very dangerous for children.
  4. Seats need to be installed correctly. Read your car seat manual and your car manual because the rules are all different! Have it double checked by a car seat tech – just in case.
  5. Seats need to be used properly. Straps should be tight. A loose harness doesn’t work! You shouldn’t be able to pinch more than an inch of strap anywhere. Chest clips are just that, chest clips. They should be at the nipple or arm pit line not over the belly. Kids should not wear thick or puffy coats that would compress in an accident. A quick test is to strap your kid into the seat in their coat and tighten the straps. Then unbuckle, take off the coat and rebuckle. If the straps are too loose, the coat is too puffy. Fleece is usually a safe and comfy choice.
  6. Beware of add-ons. This is particularly tricky with infant seats. From Bundle Me’s to mirrors to strap covers, all this stuff says it meets safety standards. It particularly easy because there are none. Stick to soft toys (hard toys can be dangerous projectiles) and the headrests and cushions that come with the seat. Avoid anything that goes between the baby and the back of the seat or the straps.
  7. Finally, drive safe! Being a safe driver yourself won’t prevent all accidents but its a great place to start. Stay focused on the road and set an example by wearing your own seat belt every time. Your kids need you!