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Parents and Caregivers: Important New Guidelines for Child Car Seat Use

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March 21, 2011

One of the most important things about child restraint system safety is using the seats correctly and appropriately for a child’s age and size. Parents and child caregivers should be aware of new child safety seat guidelines released today by the government.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had revised its child safety seat guidelines, categorizing them by age instead of type of child seat in an effort to help parents choose and utilize the safest restraint system possible.

"Safety is our highest priority," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "The ‘best’ car seat is the one that fits your child, fits your vehicle and one you will use every time your child is in the car."

According to the NHTSA:

Birth – 12 months - Your child under age 1 should always ride in a rear-facing car seat. There are different types of rear-facing car seats: Infant-only seats can only be used rear-facing. Convertible and 3-in-1 car seats typically have higher height and weight limits for the rear-facing position, allowing you to keep your child rear-facing for a longer period of time.

1 – 3 years - Keep your child rear-facing as long as possible. It’s the best way to keep him or her safe. Your child should remain in a rear-facing car seat until he or she reaches the top height or weight limit allowed by your car seat’s manufacturer. Once your child outgrows the rear-facing car seat, your child is ready to travel in a forward-facing car seat with a harness.

4 – 7 years – Keep your child in a forward-facing car seat with a harness until he or she reaches the top height or weight limit allowed by your car seat’s manufacturer. Once your child outgrows the forward-facing car seat with a harness, it’s time to travel in a booster seat, but still in the back seat.

8 – 12 years - Keep your child in a booster seat until he or she is big enough to fit in a seat belt properly. For a seat belt to fit properly the lap belt must lie snugly across the upper thighs, not the stomach. The shoulder belt should lie snug across the shoulder and chest and not cross the neck or face. Remember: your child should still ride in the back seat because it’s safer there.

For complete car seat recommendations from the NHTSA, see this publication.

NHTSA Administrator David Strickland pointed out that while all car seats sold in the U.S. must meet federal child restraint safety standards, he said, "Selecting the right seat for your child can be a challenge for many parents. NHTSA’s new revised guidelines will help consumers pick the appropriate seat for their child."

The NHTSA agreed that the new guidelines are in line with the position of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The AAP released a revised policy today, advising parents to use rear-facing car seats for children until they turn two years of age, doubling the organization’s previous policy of one-years-old, or exceed the seat’s maximum height and weight. The AAP also recommends that parents use a belt-positioning booster seat until children reach 4 feet 9 inches tall, usually between 8 and 12 years old.

“Parents often look forward to transitioning from one stage to the next, but these transitions should generally be delayed until they’re necessary, when the child fully outgrows the limits for his or her current stage,” said Dennis Durbin, MD, FAAP, lead author of the policy statement and accompanying technical report published in Pediatrics, the journal of the AAP.

According to AAP, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for children ages 4 and older.

“A rear-facing child safety seat does a better job of supporting the head, neck and spine of infants and toddlers in a crash, because it distributes the force of the collision over the entire body,” Dr. Durbin said. “For larger children, a forward-facing seat with a harness is safer than a booster, and a belt-positioning booster seat provides better protection than a seat belt alone until the seat belt fits correctly.”