Car Seat Safety
Hot Topic: Cold-Weather Wear and Car Seat Fit
One of the big challenges in the winter months is safely
belting your child in their car seat. They are bundled up to keep warm, but all
of that clothing may affect the security of the car seat, and even the most
expensive car seat on the market may not work well if your child is too
In these cold days of winter, we tend to bundle up in thick coats to ward off the chill, and we dress our children in so many layers they can barely move (think about the scene from “A Christmas Story”).
Unless you have a warm blooded kid who you can barely get in a sweatshirt even on cold days, we often snuggle our children up in the latest style of puffy parka or sporty snowsuit fit for a day at the slopes.
Those layers of warmth are wonderful for playing outside, skiing, sledding, or ice skating, but think again when it comes to traveling to your cold-weather-fun destination. Or even the quick ride to school on a day your vehicle is barely warmed up. Wearing thick or puffy coats, or bundling infants in snowsuits while they are riding in their car seat is not only difficult to manage, but can be very dangerous as well. Keep these safety tips in mind during rides with your children on cold winter days, and you can help prevent serious injury in the event of a motor vehicle crash.
- Many layers of clothing between the child and the harness straps of the car seat prevent proper snugness of the straps. You will notice inches of slack when switching from a winter coat to a lighter layer. This looseness in the harness can be enough to allow the child to slip out of the car seat in a crash, with possibly devastating consequences. Consider warming the vehicle, a lighter coat such as a fleece jacket or sweatshirt without a bulky hood, or allowing the child to remove the coat, and slip it on backwards after the harness has been secured. “Backwards coat day” can be a fun way to encourage this with the kids. You can also keep blankets in the vehicle for more layers of warmth to go OVER the car seat and child once they are safely and snugly buckled in.
- Children will often get hot in their heavy coats once the vehicle is warm, and then attempt to unbuckle themselves to remove their coats. Avoid having to stop on a trip to readjust their car seat by going light from the start.
- Infants and young toddlers are at a dual risk from this practice of over-bundling. Not only does this affect the tightness of their straps, but also they are at risk of overheating (hyperthermia) in their car seat. If they are too young to express that they are uncomfortably hot, the driver may not realize that a dangerous rise in their temperature has occurred. This is more likely also because these young children are facing the rear of the vehicle, and are more difficult to observe while driving.
- After-market products that are sold as car seat accessories such as fleece covers and buntings should not be used unless specifically made for the exact model of car seat that you have. If the item did not come with the car seat, it has not been crash tested to be used with that seat. The car seat manufacturers do not recommend adding other manufacturers’ products to their seats. In general, any added padding that goes under the child and/or incorporates the harness slots are discouraged. These often interfere with the buckling of the harness, or at the very least change the inside proportions of the seat. Again, using a simple blanket over a buckled child can solve this problem.
- In general, harness straps should be snug. Always check the tightness by pulling all the slack out. Position the chest clip at armpit level, and use the harness adjuster to tighten the straps. If slack can be pinched at the shoulder of the child, the straps are too loose.
Car Seat Safety
Your little one is going places. Help him or her get there safely with these guidelines.
In Virginia, all children must use a properly installed car or booster seat that meets Department of Transportation standards until their 8th birthday. The best safety practice is to continue to use booster seats until children are able to fit in an adult seat belt (at about 4'9" tall and 80 pounds). The seat must be properly installed and used whenever a child rides in any car, including a grandparent’s or babysitter’s.
Virginia law also states that drivers are responsible for making sure that children who have outgrown booster seats are properly restrained using the vehicle lap and shoulder belts. If children in a car are not properly secured, a driver can be stopped and given a ticket, even if no other safety violation occurs. Remember, the safest place for all children is in the back seat until they are old enough to drive!
LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) Update:
There has been many changes in the recommendations for use of the LATCH system in vehicles. Most of the controversy has arisen related to the maximum weight limits allowed for installation using the lower anchors. It is unclear based on limited testing of the newer, heavier car seats that accommodate larger, heavier children whether the LATCH system is of adequate strength to hold in a crash. Please consult your vehicle’s owner manual, car seat instruction manual, and a Child Passenger Safety Technician for assistance if needed. Many vehicles are moving to a limit of 65lb minus the weight of the car seat, and new labeling will be implemented in the future to be more clear. In the meantime, if you are still in doubt about the best method, you can install your car seat with a locked vehicle seat belt. Remember to store the LATCH straps if you are not using them to prevent them from causing injury.
You should always use the rear/top tether strap regardless of installation with lower anchors or seat belt, unless your vehicle prohibits use at a designated weight limit. This assists with limiting head movement in a crash and can decrease head and neck injuries. If you have trouble locating the anchors, please consult your vehicle owner’s manual and get your seat checked at an approved seat check station. You may see this symbol indicating the location of the child seat anchor.
Minivan or SUV
Sedan or Car with Trunk
Guidelines By Age
Infants must always ride in a rear-facing car seat until they are 2 years old.
Choose an infant-only car seat/carrier or a rear-facing convertible seat that fits your baby by weight and height. The seat must fit in the back seat of the vehicle; it should never be placed in the front seat of a vehicle with passenger-side air bags.
Secure harness straps at or slightly below shoulder level in one of the lowest slots, snugly against the body. The chest clip should be secured at armpit level.
There must be adequate space in the vehicle for the seat to be reclined at the proper angle according to the car seat manual. Newborns should be reclined at a 45-degree angle.
Your baby has outgrown the seat when he exceeds the weight limit or his head is within 1 inch from the top of the seat.
Toddler (up to age 4)
It is recommended that toddlers remain rear-facing until age 2. Use a convertible car seat that has an expanded rear-facing limit of up to 45 pounds in certain models. Rear facing provides greater crash protection in all types of crashes.
Children ages 2 to 4 may ride forward facing in a convertible or forward-facing seat in an upright position. Use a car seat with a harness system for as long as possible (up to 65-85 pounds).
In a forward facing car seat, secure harness at the slots at or slightly above the shoulders. The harness retainer clip/chest clip should be secured at armpit level.
If the seat was used rear facing initially, make sure to make all adjustments when moving it to the forward facing mode. This includes recline adjustment to a more upright position, changing harness slots, and installation using the forward facing belt path. Failure to make these adjustments can prevent the seat from providing adequate protection in a crash.
Children who are more than 4 years old and 40 pounds can remain in a five-point harness much longer with current available models, up to 90 pounds. Use a seat with a harness as long as possible, as it provides more crash protection than a booster seat. Check your child's weight and height to make sure they are still within the limits of the car seat harness system.
Children who are four or older, and typically over 40 pounds can also move into a belt-positioning booster seat. A booster seat provides a raised seat so that the vehicle seat belt is properly positioned on the child. For best protection, booster seats should be used until the child is about 4 feet 9 inches tall, which is usually around the age of 8-12. Prematurely moving a smaller child into a booster seat can put them at high risk of injury in a crash.
High-back boosters can provide better upper body crash protection than the no-back type. Most models have deep head wings and sides which provide protection in side impact crashes. Always use high back boosters in older vehicles with low seat backs or non-adjustable head restraints to provide head and neck protection. The high back boosters provide an easier adjustment for the shoulder belt on varying heights of children. Children who tend to fall asleep in the car will be better protected in a high back booster because they will be less likely to fall out of position.
For heavier or taller children who are not ready to sit safely in a booster seat, look for a car seat with a harness crash tested to hold 65-90 pounds, or consult the CHKD special needs car seat program for assistance.
To ride without a booster seat, children should be tall enough to sit all the way back with knees bent at the edge of the seat with feet on the floor, and be able to maintain this position at all times. The belt should cross over the child’s upper thighs, shoulder and collar bone. Never allow the child to move the shoulder belt under his arm or behind his back. If a child is over 8 years old, weighs more than 80 pounds, and is at least 4 feet 9 inches tall, he should be ready for the vehicle lap and shoulder belts. Many children at age 8 are not tall enough to ride without a booster seat. Only about 50 percent of 10 year olds have reached this height. Riding without a booster seat when they are not tall enough for the vehicle's belt system increases their chances of severe injury or death in a crash.
Things To Keep In Mind
- Never take a child out of a safety seat while the car is in motion.
- The back seat is the safest place for children under age 13. Many traffic safety professionals recommend back seat use until driver training.
- Never place an infant or child in under 13 in the front seat of a vehicle with airbags. If this seat is needed to transport children, your auto dealer can assist you with turning off your airbag.
- Always use a car seat that is approved by the Department of Transportation that is functioning correctly.
- Do not alter your car seat in any way. This includes adding any extra padding or positioning products that did not come with the seat, which adds bulk under the child or between the child and the harness straps.
- Remove bulky clothing and coats – these will keep the harness from being snug enough. Warm up the car and/or use blankets over the child after they have been buckled in.
- Harness straps should always be flat and not twisted. DO NOT put harness straps in the washing machine, as this can weaken them.
- The harness retainer clip (chest clip) is actually an important part of the system. It should always be positioned at armpit level.
- Tighten the harness system so that you cannot pinch any slack at the shoulders. Make sure the slack is fully tightened up at the hip area before you pull the harness adjuster.
- Keep a supply of soft toys in the car for play. Do not attach hard plastic toys to the car seats, as they can injure your child in the event of a crash.
- Do not use a car seat that has been involved in a crash. It may be weakened in areas you cannot see.
- Do not use a second-hand car seat if you do not know the previous owners or its history.
- Do not use a car seat that has broken or missing parts.
- During hot weather, always check the car seat parts for hot spots that may burn your child, such as metal harness adjusters or buckles.
- Always complete and return the car seat registration card so you will be notified of any recalls.
- In the case of a crash, do not remove the child from the car seat until medical personnel check for injuries.
- Car seats do expire. Check the bottom of the seat for an expiration date. If not listed, assume 6 years from date of manufacture.
Children With Special Needs
Evaluations for children with special transportation needs are available by trained Physical and Occupational Therapists for children who need short or long term travel solutions. Loaner specialty restraints are available for appropriate patients. Click here for more information on the Special Needs Child Passenger Safety Program.
Disposing Of A Car Seat
Most car safety seats come with expiration dates determined by the manufacturer. If you can’t find the expiration date, the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association recommends that a car seat be disposed of six years from its manufacture date. Also, if a car seat had to be replaced because it was involved in a crash, the old one must be disposed of.
You can dispose of a car seat by taking it to an AAA Service Center. Some DMV offices will also accept car seats. If you can’t get to one of those places, you can dispose of an unsafe car seat by destroying it. That way there’s no chance of it being found and reused.
For further information, please call (757) 668-8655.
Car Seat Assistance For Low-Income Virginia Residents
There are assistance programs for low-income Virginia residents who cannot afford to purchase a child safety seat. Please contact your local health department or call CHKD at (757) 668-8655 for more information.