Car seats! There’s so much information out there and some of it is contradictory. How do we figure out what is true and what is a car seat myth?
You want to do what is best for your family and keep your children safe. We’re here to help you decipher what is true and what is false by confirming or busting (mostly busting) these common car seat myths.
As car seat technicians since the early 2000s, we’ve run across a lot of car seat myths. And in some cases, things changed over time. So here goes.
Car Seat Myth #1: Time to Turn Your Child Around because… (My Child’s Legs are up the seat and will break. My child is uncomfortable. Or my child doesn’t like rear facing.)
I admit this is first on the list because it is probably the comment we hear most often from parents. So let’s bust this myth.
- Leg injuries are actually very rare in children who are in rear-facing restraints. The potential for leg injuries actually goes up when a child turns forward facing because the legs then hit the vehicle seat back in front of them or the center console. And even if leg injuries were a thing for rear facing children, leg injuries are less serious than the potential head, neck or spine injuries that can come with forward facing.
- Think about it. A child’s lack of comfort, especially if the child isn’t really talking yet to say, “I’m uncomfortable”, is probably a projection. What may look like it would be uncomfortable for you is usually just fine or preferred for a child. Most children would probably rather have their legs up or criss-cross than hanging over the front of the car seat with their feet going to sleep (or is that just my son whose feet go to sleep?).
- Often times we get the “my child doesn’t like it” when it’s the younger child in the family and other children are forward facing. So maybe they can see that it can be different but they’ve never experienced the difference. We always say if you teach them it’s safer, they probably won’t complain. In our house, rear-facing as long as possible was just the way it was, just like brushing your teeth every day is just the way it is or holding a hand when crossing the street as a toddler is just the way it is. That should reduce, if not eliminate, any complaints.
Remember, rear facing is safer for children because the car seat supports and protects the head, neck and spinal cord. Children should remain rear-facing until they outgrow the height or weight limit of their rear-facing car seat, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Car Seat Myth #2: My child can use a booster seat now that he or she is the minimum weight.
Remember that any move “up” in car seats is a move “down” in safety. This is not a “graduation” to be excited about safety wise. Minimums whether car seat specifications or car seat laws, don’t necessarily mean it’s time to transition.
Let’s look at the 5 principles of restraint systems:
- Keep occupants inside the vehicle. When a crash throws a person from a vehicle the potential for injury increases drastically.
- Contact the strongest points on the body.
- Spread the crash force out of as much of the body surface area as possible.
- Ride down the crash, which means to spread the crash energy out over more time for instance by the seat belt’s giving and stretching some during a crash.
- Protect the head, neck and spinal column — the parts of the human body that are really hard to repair once damaged.
If we combine numbers 2 and 3, we want to contact the highest number (within reason of use, a person wouldn’t put on a 10-point seat belt) of the strongest parts of the body. A 5-point obviously contacts 5 points of the body. A RideSafer vest with a tether strap contacts 4 points on the body, two shoulders and two hips. A booster seat with a seat belt (or just the seat belt) contacts 3 points on the body. Based on these principles, a 5-point harness is “safer”. It offers more protection for as long as the child fits the the height and weight limits.
Plus, you need to take into account more than just size before moving a child up to a booster seat. Age and maturity are important also. A child may not be mature enough yet to sit properly throughout the drive to transition to a booster seat.
Car Seat Myth #3: A 5-point harness is safer than a booster for older kids.
We know for younger children a 5-point harness is safer. But for mature kids over 40 pounds who can sit properly for an entire car ride, is it still true?
For this one we cannot actually say conclusively if it is true or not. Unfortunately, there are no actual studies looking at say a 5-year-old, 50 pound child sitting in a booster with a seat belt versus being in a 5-point harness. So comparatively speaking we cannot definitively say if this is a myth or not.
Both 5-point harnessed seats and belt-positioning boosters greatly reduce the risk of injury in a crash when used properly.
Remember those principles for restraint systems? It is plausible that a 5-point harness is “safer”. But to really confirm or bust this car seat myth, actual “side-by-side” comparison testing needs to be completed.
Download our report: Common Car Seat Mistakes and How to Fix Them
Car Seat Myth #4: My child can use just the seat belt now that he or she is 8 years old.
While out and about I so often see children in the front seat who are obviously too young to be in the front seat (not that there’s a law about that in Colorado, it is a safety recommendation) and who still need a booster seat. You can tell because you just see the top of the child’s head over the dash.
If you base moving to just a seat belt on age, you’re probably following your state car seat law, though they vary, some have a lower age requirement. Again car seat laws are a minimum standard, not necessarily what is safest.
Moving to a seat belt is a step down in safety, especially if the child doesn’t fit properly. Being able to pass the 5-step seat belt fit test is more important than age. Typically a child won’t pass the test until he or she is at least 4’9” (57”) tall which may not happen until sometime between ages 10 and 12. Our 10 year old is average height compared to his same age friends and he is 55” tall and still using a booster.
Incorrectly positioned seat belts can cause deadly injuries in a crash. Another myth busted.
Car Seat Myth #5: If seat belt is good and LATCH is good, both will be safer.
Busted, mostly. According to NHTSA studies, there is no benefit to using both LATCH and seat belt together.
Most car seat manufacturers only using one or the other method to install a car seat, not both. If the manual tells you to not use both, it’s either because the manufacturer did not test the seat using both or they did test the seat using both and it failed.
(Since there must always be an exception to the rule. There are a few car seats currently available that do allow it. Make sure to read your manual.)
And just to clear up a related myth that LATCH installation is safer than a seat belt installation, this is most definitely not true. LATCH was created with the intention of making car seat installation easier for parents (not safer). The continued high rate of incorrect installations of car seats shows that this intent was not as successful as hoped. There are certain situations where seat belt is required to be used in the install. For instance, seat belt is needed for most center seat installations or when the seat and child are over the Lower Anchor weight limits.
When you have a choice in which to use for an install, use the one with which you can get the best install for that car seat, seating position and vehicle.
Car Seat Myth #6: You can install a car seat too tight that it damages the car seat or seat belt.
This is actually a myth I learned as truth during my car seat training. I don’t know if it changed along the way because we saw more testing data or if an instructor was spreading a myth because that instructor didn’t know it was a myth at the time.
Now at the time there were installation accessories on the market that could over tighten, overstretch the stretch in the seat belt, making the seat belt weak. Those devices were taken off the market. Though I did see some come back not too long ago. I don’t know if any are currently on the market but, if they are, do not use them.
We used to call it “firefighter tight”. Basically the car seat is installed so tight it shakes the whole car when you try to move it. The thinking behind this car seat myth is that the car seat is designed to help the child “ride down” the crash energy. The belief was when the install is super tight, the car seat becomes part of the car, which supposedly reduces the amount of ride down.
However, in most cases, there is no too tight. You are likely not heavy enough and strong enough to push that car seat into the vehicle seat enough to install it so tight (in excess of 1200 pounds of force) that it will damage the car seat or over stretch the seat belt. But I say “in most cases” because there are car seats with an integrated mechanical advantage feature — like a Britax with ClickTight or Chicco with SuperCinch — that say not to tighten too much.
Basically, install the car seat based on the car seat manufacturer’s instructions. And know that during a crash the difference between a car seat installed rock-solid and a car seat installed properly with less than an inch of movement at the belt path, is negligible.
Car Seat Myth #7: Car seats can’t touch or otherwise be puzzled together to fit 3 across.
Let’s face it some cars are narrower than others. And some families cannot afford to buy a new car when baby number 3 comes along. Sometimes buying one or more new car seats is also out of the question. Sometimes we have to make things work as best we can. In the car seat world, technicians call it the “Good, Better, Best”. We can’t always make Best work for every situation. Sometimes Better or Good have to do.
Typically it’s the width of that center seat that makes or breaks being able to fit 3 across. In our case, it the two outboard bucket seats the made fitting 3 across in our sedan not work.
Some puzzling is usually required to fit 3 across. Most car seat manufacturers don’t say anything about car seats not being able to touch other seats. Some specifically say that their car seat can to touch other seats. Myth busted.
What is important here is:
- you’ve properly installed all seats per the seats’ manuals
- seats are independently secure, meaning its install won’t change if you remove the seats next to it,
- if using an infant car seat, you can secure the carrier to the base without interference from other seats,
- if using a booster seat or seat belt, the person in that position has access to the seat belt buckle,
- you aren’t using one Lower Anchor of the LATCH system for two lower anchor connectors of two different car seats,
- and you can close the car door without squishing or shifting car seats.
Car Seat Myth #8: The role of a Child Passenger Safety Technician or car seat expert is to install my car seat.
Also incorrect. Although, a local Child Passenger Safety Technician is a great person to visit to help you figure out a 3-across the back seat puzzle.
Actually our role is to help parents understand why we suggest certain things. And to teach them how to keep their child as safe as they can under their given circumstances — type of car, type of seats, number of children, ages of children, etc. Our goal is that the parent can safety reproduce a correct install of their children’s seats so they can do it correctly when they need to redo it, which they inevitably will need to do at some point.
So while you may want to run to your local fire station or police station (pssst, which you may not find a certified child passenger safety technician at either of those places), for a quick car seat install, be ready to spend some time going over more information. And be ready to get hands on. You should be the person who does the final install before you leave your car seat appointment.
By Amie Durocher, Creative Director at Safe Ride 4 Kids and certified CPS Tech since 2004
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