When it comes to child-safety-seat installation and use, there’s a good chance that you’re doing it wrong.
A nationwide field study of car-seat use and installation back in 2011 found that 46% of car seats were installed or used incorrectly, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found, based on 4,167 inspections and driver interviews.
It’s often the little things that lead to misuse. It could be that the car seat isn’t installed tightly enough and can move more than an inch when you wiggle it from side to side, or that the chest clip on an infant-safety seat or convertible seat is positioned higher or lower than the correct spot, armpit level.
Here are some of the most common misuses the study found:
•Incorrect recline angle on rear-facing car seats
The study found that 16% of rear-facing infant seats and 12% of rear-facing convertibles weren’t installed with the correct recline angle. These types of car seats must recline at an angle of 30 to 45 degrees, depending on the car-seat manufacturer’s recommendations.
Infant-safety seats often have an adjustable foot that will help to maintain the correct recline angle for the car seat as well as a built-in level to show you’ve hit the correct angle.
Convertible seats have reclining angle indicators to help ensure they’re installed correctly.
Positioning a rear-facing car seat with a 45-degree recline angle helps to keep the baby’s airway open, especially when an infant has little to no head control.
•Loose installation on forward-facing car seats
Seventeen percent of forward-facing convertibles investigated in the study moved more than 2 inches from side to side at the belt path, where the seat belt or strap attached to the latch anchors goes through the car seat and holds it in place.
To remedy the problem, every time you’re going to use a car seat, give the seat a firm tug at the belt path to see if it moves more than an inch. If it moves, push down on the car seat’s bottom cushion with one hand while pulling up on the latch strap to tighten it with the other. It’s a good idea to get in the habit of testing this every time you’re going to use the car seat.
A car seat that isn’t securely installed in a car won’t protect your child in a crash as well as one that is, which means making sure the installation isn’t too loose.
•Tether anchor not used on forward-facing convertible
Nearly 40% of forward-facing convertibles — baby seats, not open-topped cars — observed in this study were installed incorrectly because the convertible’s tether strap wasn’t connected to the tether anchor.
The issue is important because in a crash, the top tether strap reduces a car seat’s forward and side movement as well as the child’s head movement by 6 to 8 inches.
Easy to fix: The tether strap is found on the back of the convertible, at the top. Make sure to read both owner’s manuals — your car seat’s and car’s — to make sure you connect it correctly to the tether anchor, usually found on seatbacks, the car’s rear shelf, in the cargo floor or in the cargo-area ceiling. If you’re installing it in a pickup truck, read more on how to use tether anchors here.
•Lap belt sits on child’s abdomen when in a booster seat
In the study, 9% of kids in high-back booster seats and 12% in backless boosters were found to have the seat belt’s lap belt sitting across their tummy.
Remedy the problem by making sure the lap belt sits on the child’s upper thighs and the shoulder belt is on the chest and not the child’s neck.