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Five Dangerous Car Seat Mistakes

It’s a statistic I’ve read so many times it has lost its shock value:
9 out of 10 car seats are installed and/or used incorrectly.
Let’s put that into perspective.  Imagine your child waiting in a line at an elementary school with 9 of their classmates. Your child is of course sandwiched between their two best friends.  Next to them is the fastest runner in the class, and after her are the two newly elected class representatives for the student council. Then the class clown, the kid who’s captured the most Pokemon, the kid with the longest hair, and the one with the coolest backpack…
Statistically, only one of these children is fully protected on their ride to and from school.
The good news is that this can be easily changed.  Here is a list of the most common – and dangerous – car seat mistakes that I’ve seen as a CPST.  These are not presented in any order; all of these can be harmful or deadly.

Tether Usage 

When a child is using a forward facing seat with a harness the tether should always be used if possible.  Often called a “top tether” and sometimes a “tether anchor”, the tether is one of the most important components of a forward facing restraint.  Its job is simple: prevent head excursion, and it does its job well.  When a tether is used it effectively removes 4-6 of forward head movement; that’s the difference between serious head injuries from your child’s head striking the seat back in front of him and a sore neck.

The tether should be used with all forward facing seats, regardless of installation method (lower anchors vs the seat belt). If your vehicle doesn’t have tether anchors, contact a CPST local to you for ideas on how to proceed.

Watch the video below and pay attention to exactly how much the car seat moves at the top without the tether attached.

Video courtesy of – Buckle Up With Brutus

Loose Harnesses

A common misconception with harnesses is that they don’t have to be snug against the body.  Lots of people compare the harness to a seat belt, where the person in a seat belt can move their upper body around and still stay safe in a crash due to the belt locking on impact.

What most people don’t realize is that car seat harnesses are primarily pre-crash positioning devices.  They keep your child in the ideal pre-crash position – because heaven knows we can’t trust small children to stay still, not for all the bribery in the world.  Harnesses do not lock on impact like a seat belt does; that must be done when the child is put into the harness so it stays that snug the entire trip, thereby keeping your child safe. The correctly used harness helps disperse crash forces and prevents ejection.

To ensure the harness is nice and snug, do the pinch test: run your forefinger and thumb along the harness webbing at the child’s shoulders in a pinching motion. If you can grab any webbing between your finger and thumb that means the harness is not tight enough.

Chest Clip Placement

The chest clip (or retainer clip) like the harness straps, is another pre-crash positioning device, only its job is to make sure the harness straps are securely on the child’s shoulders. As its name suggests, the chest clip should lay on the child’s chest at armpit level. If the chest clip is too low or high it can’t do its job and your child could be ejected from their seat.

Installing Seat Loosely

A seat is properly installed when there is no more than 1″ of movement side to side or front to back. Too much movement can severely compromise the safety of the seat – and your child. You wouldn’t want the vehicle seat you sit in to wobble all around, would you? Nope.

Pop quiz! Did you know that all vehicles manufactured after 1996 must have a way to somehow lock the vehicle belt? Some do so in the retractor, some in the latchplate. Why do you need to know this? If you’re installing a car seat using the seat belt you must somehow lock the belt to keep the seat secure. If using the lower anchors you can achieve this by pulling on the excess webbing until there is no slack left and the seat doesn’t move more than 1″ front to back or side to side. If using the seat belt, you have to lock the belt somehow, be it with the seat’s built-in lockoff (not all seats have these), activating the retractor or otherwise locking the seat belt, or using a locking clip. If you’re confused, read this article by Car Seats For The Littles or contact a CPST near you for assistance. 

Transitioning Too Early

As caregivers we are always so incredibly proud when our children reach milestones. From their first steps to their first day of school we cheer them on and encourage their independence. But every time a child outgrows a car seat they take a step down in safety. That’s why we like to keep kids in their car seats until they’re outgrown; this way we know we’ve done everything we possibly can to keep them as safe as possible for as long as possible.

Turning a 1 year old forward facing is very common. The common thought is that “infant seats” are only for infants, and when they are outgrown the child can be turned forward. This is simply not true. Rearfacing is safest for everyone, and there is no upper limit on how rearfacing can benefit your child, but we know that in the second year of life rearfacing is 500% safer than forward facing. Even if their legs are touching the seatback, and even if none of their peers are – if your child still fits in the rearfacing seat, keep them that way. This includes convertible seats, and most convertible seats on the market will accommodate most children until 3-4 years old.

This 8 year old, roughly 55lb 3rd grader still needs a booster seat!
Transitioning from a forward facing harnessed seat to a belt positioning booster is also commonly done too early.  Some manufacturers have limits on their booster seats as low as 3 years old!  3 year old children – even the biggest 3 year old children – have no business being in booster seats.  The reason for this is that when using a seat belt it must always be positioned properly.  How can a 3 year old (or 4 year old, or 5 year old…) be relied on to sit still in the family vehicle when they can’t even sit still for 17 seconds at the dinner table?  The fact is, if the seat belt doesn’t fit properly, the child is at risk for severe injuries… even ejection and death.

And don’t be too hasty in rushing your child out of that booster seat, either!  Until they fit well in the adult seat belt all children should stay in the back seat in a booster; usually this happens around 10-12 years of age… no where near what the law in MI states.

This list is not exhaustive.  In fact, it’s impossible to know which mistake will be most costly because we don’t know what type of crash we may be involved in.  For this reason, always do your best.  Always secure your children correctly and follow guidelines.  
As always, if you have questions feel free to reach out to me or any other certified CPST!
Author: Dana

Dana is the lucky mother to two incredible kids (aged 10 & 6) and the happy wife of Nate. She stumbled around in her adult life for a while before finally realizing that she could get paid to pursue her passion: keeping kids safe. In 2013 she started working at Modern Natural Baby in Ferndale where she eventually became a Child Passenger Safety Technician with additional Special Needs training. Dana also runs the child passenger safety-focused Facebook page Buckle Up Detroit and works with the amazing lady bosses at Metro Detroit Doula Services offering car seat classes, consultations, and more!