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Car Seat Safety: Facts and Myths

Posted on Sep 28, 2020

You might assume that with people driving less, there are fewer car crashes. This has not been the case. According to preliminary reports from the National Safety Council, fatalities are up in comparison with previous years. For example, when we look at May, fatalities were up 23.5% in comparison to the previous year. So, even though people were driving less, they were more like to experience more severe crashes.

While some of our lifestyles have changed during the pandemic, keeping your children safe in the car is still very important. On this week’s On Call for All Kids, Petra Vybiralova Stanton, SAFE Kids Supervisor at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, provides parents with what’s true or false on questions about car seat safety.

FALSE: My child can be front facing after his or her first birthday.

The safest way for children to travel is rear-facing until they outgrow the weight or height limit of the seat for the rear-facing position. This information can be either found in the car seat manual or on the labels on the car seat.

FALSE: I have to turn my child around when his or her feet touch the back of the vehicle seat.

Having the child's legs extend over the car seat in the rear-facing position is not a safety hazard. Children love to bend their legs or even sit “criss-cross apple sauce.” The car seat will move backward in a crash, which also creates more room for the legs. For children who are within the weight and height limit of the seat, they are safe because the car seat was safety tested that way.

FALSE: Using both lower anchors and a seat belt will make the car seat safer.

Most manufacturers allow us to use one method or the other at one time. Typically, we recommend using lower anchors or seat belt, not both. Using both can apply too much crash forces on the seat. However, a couple of car seats do allow the use of both, so make sure you read your car seat manual to ensure you are installing your car seat correctly.

FALSE: My child is 4 years old and 30 pounds so he or she can move to a booster seat.

A five-point harness is always safer than the seat belt. Think about racecar drivers and their harnessing. So keep that five-point harness as long as the weight or height limit allows. The minimum for a child to use a booster seat is 4 years of age and 40 pounds. If you have a 7-year-old who is 36 pounds, he or she should still be in the five-point harness. In addition, we urge parents to look at the child's maturity level and ask yourself: Is the child able to sit properly for the entire ride? In a booster seat, the seat belt will allow for more movement. If your child is likely to move around while you are driving, keep him or her in the five-point harness. 

TRUE and FALSE: Booster seats do not have to be used.

If your child can properly fit in the vehicle seat belt, which is around 4 feet 9 inches height, he or she does not need a booster seat. To check whether the child is ready to be in a seat belt, sit him or her on the vehicle seat and buckle up. Make sure the child’s back is against the vehicle seat. The seat belt should go over the collar bone and the hip bones or upper thighs. The knees should be able to bend over the edge of the seat, and the feet should be able to touch the floor. 

If the seat belt goes over the child's neck or stomach, a booster seat should be used. If the knees do not bend over the edge of the seat, children tend to move forward to allow for the knees to bend, but this places the seat belt on their stomach and neck — therefore they must use a booster seat to be safe. 

FALSE: My child can sit in the front seat at age 12.

This is actually a case of tricky language. The vehicle manufacturers stated on their sunshades THROUGH the age of 12, meaning at 13 the child can sit there. They have changed the language now and in many cases it states 13 years of age. The bottom line is this: We do not worry about the size of the child as much as we worry about their bones. At 13, we know their bones are mature enough to withstand the impact of a deploying airbag. 

FALSE: It's OK to wear a backpack while riding in the car.

Even though this is commonly seen as children depart schools in the car line, it is important that they remove the backpack before they put the seat belt on. This is true whether children are in a booster seat or a seat belt. Having the backpack on will put them too far forward and allow for too much movement in a crash. 

What can we do right now to make sure our child's seat is safe and properly installed? 

Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital offers virtual car seat checks. Two safety seat technicians will meet with a family on a visual platform such a FaceTime or Google Duo and teach the family how to use their car seat correctly every time. The families gain a great deal of confidence in the use of their car seat at the end of the appointment. 

Also, if families have a hard time obtaining a car seat at a regular cost, the hospital has a program to provide qualifying families with a car seat for a contribution of $20. 

To schedule a virtual car seat check or to participate in a virtual session, visit or call 727-767-7835

On Call for All Kids is a weekly series featuring Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital experts. Visit each Monday for the latest report. 

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