Car Seat Harness Straps
After the car seat not being installed tightly enough, car seat harness straps misuse is the next most common error found in car seat use.
Using the car seat harness straps in the child restraint correctly is just as important for the child’s safety as having the restraint installed in the vehicle correctly. Here are some rules of thumb:
- Positioning of strap at the shoulders:
- Rear-facing: The harness straps should be in a slot at or below shoulder level to cradle over the shoulder. Putting shoulder harnesses too high for rear-facing children has a similar effect as not fully tightening the safety harness itself. Most car collisions happen when the car is moving forward, causing a rear-facing child’s back to be pressed against the seatback of the child restraint seat. This means that a main goal of a rear-facing car seat harness is to keep the child’s body from sliding upwards against the child restraint’s seatback. Every tiny increment of increased distance the child moves exponentially amplifies the forces on the child’s body. The more a child’s body accelerates, the more the child’s head and chest are subjected to increased g-forces both at the beginning of the collision and during the deceleration after the collision.
- Forward-facing: The harness straps should be in a slot at or above shoulder level. While forward-facing the crash forces will cause the child’s body to be thrown forward. The harness straps should be positioned at or above the child’s shoulders when forward facing to most effectively decrease the amount of distance the child will travel when propelled forward and to limit the forces on the child’s spine and shoulders.
- Buckle the harness straps into the crotch strap and buckle together the harness clip, which may seem obvious that you need to buckle both but sometimes one gets overlooked or it’s not tested to make sure it actually clicked in.
- Tightening of the harness straps: The straps should be tight enough that you cannot pinch the webbing between your thumb and fingers. If you can pinch it at all, it’s too loose. If the straps are too loose, during a crash they could separate off the child’s shoulders and the child could come out of the child restraint during a crash. You need these nice and snug.
- Height of the harness clip: The harness clip should be at arm-pit level on the child. The same mechanics apply as if the straps are too loose, during a crash if the clip is too low the child could come out of the straps. (We recommend tightening the straps then moving the clip up to position. If it starts high, you could tighten the straps and pull the clip right into the child’s throat.)
- Bulky clothing: The child should not wear bulky clothing in the harness straps. During a crash the bulky clothing would compress then the straps would be too loose. Again this could cause the straps to not hold the child in the restraint during a crash. We recommend nothing thicker than sweatshirt material. If it is a cold winter day, take your child out of his/her coat, strap them in the harness straps nice and snug, then put the coat on backwards over them or cover them with a blanket. This actually makes it easier to remove as the car warms up too so the child doesn’t overheated while driving.
- Make sure to keep the harness straps free of any twists. When they are twisted the crash force is place on a smaller area of the body which can cause increased injury.
- When the straps need to be cleaned, wipe them with a moist cloth. You can use a baby wipe, or a washcloth with a little drop of soap. Do not submerge or wash in the washing machine, this ruins the integrity of the strap. If such a thorough cleaning is necessary, you should replace the straps. Call the manufacturer of the child restraint to get new straps.
Download our report: Common Car Seat Mistakes and How to Fix Them
Do you have any other harness strap tricks to make sure they are correct? Share your comments below.
By Amie Durocher, Creative Director at Safe Ride 4 Kids and certified CPS Tech since 2004
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This post was originally published July 2013 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.