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Why do Car Seats Expire? (Is it a conspiracy?)

car seats expire

More and more it seems that things are just not built to last any more. Even car seats. Most every parent has heard that car seats have expiration dates but very few understand why car seats expire.

Over and over again parents question the reason for car seat expiration dates. They wonder if manufacturers are just trying to sell more car seats. Of course, as parents, we want to keep our children as safe as possible and follow car seat best practices as best we can. That includes throwing out what seems like a perfectly good car seat.

car seats expire

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says:

“Manufacturers of newer child seats provide “expiration” dates for their seats that typically range from six to eight years from the date it was manufactured. Expiration dates are a way for manufacturers to provide consumers with guidance as to the expected “useful” life of their car seat.”

But Why do Car Seats expire?

There is actually a very good reason for car seat expiration dates.

Car seats are made from petroleum-based plastics. This material is excellent for producing a strong, reliable child restraint, but it is subject to degrade from environmental factors. Car seats sit in a car during freezing temperatures to super hot temperatures of 140 degrees or more. Overtime this can breakdown the plastic making it brittle.

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Sun exposure can also cause damage to plastics and synthetic fabrics often used in car seats. There is research to backup damage from sun. It doesn’t refer specifically to how the plastic used in car seats might degrade when subjected to standard use in vehicles.

Whether or not car seat manufacturers age test their car seats is unknown. Car seat manufacturers tend to guard their data closely. Most won’t release crash test data either, claiming it is proprietary information. Whether they have or haven’t age tested car seats, knowing plastic does degrade over time, manufacturers may want to protect themselves from possible liability and perhaps keep expiration periods shorter than they may otherwise be just in case.

Food or drinks spilled on, or cleaning agents used on, or dirt gathered in webbing, buckles, adjusters and other parts may prevent them from working safely after some time.

How does that affect the life of a car seat?

Degrading plastic can interfere with the performance of a car seat. The ability of the shell to maintain integrity and transfer crash energy to the seat belt or LATCH system could be compromised.

For instance, using a conventional 5-point harness car seat forward facing during a forward crash, the restraining forces are first experienced by the harness strap, then transferred to the shell of the car seat before being transferred to the seat belt or LATCH and finally to the car. If the plastic is degraded, the shell could potentially break during that transfer of energy.

Other reasons for car seats expiring

In addition to the materials aging, the standards could have changed since your car seat was manufactured. If the regulations change, an older car seat may no longer be in compliance. Often car seats can continue to be used to the end of their life. But if a car seat had no expiration date, it may allow you to continue using a car seat that is no longer as safe as the new standards require.

Even if federal standards haven’t been updated, car seat manufacturers are always trying to improve safety and ease of use. So newer car seats may be easier to install and have increased safety performance.

Recalls can affect the usability of a car seat. Usually if there is a recall on a car seat the manufacturer will notify the registered owner and send replacement parts. Very rarely, a car seat will be deemed unusable and the manufacturer will instruct you to discontinue use and destroy the seat.

Are manufacturers required to give an expiration date?

No. There is no government regulation that requires an expiration date on car seats in the United States. However, NHTSA does recommend expiration dates due to the possible changes in regulations over time. For instance, for the first almost 10 years, RideSafer vests did not have an expiration date. The manufacturer added an expiration date per NHTSA’s request.

Car seat manufacturers decide them based on the expected useful life of their product. Most car seats expire after 6 to 7 years from the date of manufacturer. Note that is not the date of purchase; it could have sat on the store shelf for months or longer. RideSafer vests currently have a 10-year expiration date.

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Where to find the expiration date

All car seats must have a date of manufacturer on them. Most of the time this is on a sticker, often on the back of the shell. Sometimes the date is actually embossed on the shell of the car seat.

Some car seat manufacturers also add a date of expiration on the sticker. Others just have a length of time from the date of manufacture.

If you are buying a car seat secondhand, which we do not recommend, be sure to look for the expiration date. If it is past or coming up sooner than the length of time your child will need to use the seat, it’s not a good purchase. (Buying a used seat also has the risk that the car seat was in a crash that the owner didn’t reveal, the car seat is missing parts, or that some parts are worn out and not in good condition.)

Could I get in trouble for using an expired car seat?

It depends. NHTSA says there is no regulation prohibiting parents from using an expired car seat and most states don’t say anything about a car seat’s expiration in their laws.

But many states’ car seats laws do require a parent to use the car seat per the manufacturer’s instructions. If the manufacturer has an expiration date and you are using it beyond that date, you are not using the car seat per the manufacturer’s instructions. That would technically be illegal. But in all likelihood a police officer isn’t going to remove your car seat to check the date of manufacturer. Well, unless it’s very obviously an old seat and they are trained to look for it.

Is it ever OK to use an expired seat?

This is when car seat best practice and reality may not fit. In some situations the reality is a parent simply cannot afford a new car seat. In this case is using an expired seat better than not using a car seat at all? Quite possibly.

What do I do if a car seat is expired?

A car seat or booster seat that has expired should be permanently disposed of so it cannot be reused by any one else. Car seat technicians tell parents to “destroy” the car seat. This means cutting the harness straps and removing the padding prior to recycling the car seat or putting it in the trash.

By Amie Durocher, Creative Director at Safe Ride 4 Kids and certified CPS Tech since 2004

Copyright 2020 Safe Ride 4 Kids. All rights reserved. You may not publish, broadcast, rewrite or redistribute this material without permission. You are welcome to link to Safe Ride 4 Kids or share on social media.

© amie durocher

15 comments

  1. Call any car seat manufacturer and ask them to provide you with any data or conducted study that supports why their expiration date is set to what it is. I’ll be waiting for your reply.

    Or, show me any independent study, with actual, empirical data, that has provided any evidence that car seats are no longer effective beyond 6 years.

    Have you ever seen one? I have not. Just the same blog posts and articles repeating the same nonsense over and over (in many cases, it’s almost verbatim).

    On the contrary, studies have been performed that show there is no noticeable difference in the effectiveness of a well maintained car seat beyond its expiration date.

    Look at Sweden, for example, where car seats are used for many, many years, and they have one of the lowest child car accident death rates in the world.

    Their equivalent of the DOT has conducted studies showing no degradation of materials after 20 or even 30 years.

    I get that technology changes – and that’s perhaps a legitimate reason for someone to want to invest in a newer car seat – but not a necessity. However, this constant fear-mongering that their well-maintained 6, 7, or 8 year old car seat is no longer safe due to “degradation of materials” or “inability to find replacement parts” (ummm, if I need a replacement part that I can no longer find, sure, I’ll buy a new one…. but why would my perfectly well-functioning car seat that has all of its parts now be rendered “expired” over the POSSIBILITY that I may need a new part at some indeterminate point in the future?), is an outright lie, and furthermore, not very environmentally friendly.

    1. Hi Ryan, As I mentioned in the article, if they have completed testing, car seat manufacturers have not and likely will not share those results as it would be considered proprietary information. There is a link to a study that showed sunlight degrades the type of plastic often used in the article above.

      Often Sweden is credited for having such a low child car accident death rate because all parents keep their children rear-facing for an extended period. I’ve never read or heard of it them using a car seat for years and years. Their car seat manufacturers also have expiration dates on car seats. As I also mentioned in the article it may be a tactic to avoid liability in case the materials degrade.

      I could not find any studies done in Sweden indicating it’s OK to continue using car seats for 20-30 years. I did find one article that says they interviewed Professor Anders Kullgren of the Karolinska Institutet and the Chalmers University of Technology, as well as the longtime head of traffic safety research at Folksam, one of Sweden’s largest insurers. This article quotes him as saying, “We have not seen any changes or problems with the plastic material in those seats [used seats in storage] for this 20–30 year period of time.” Now that is not a study and it also does not indicate if they crash tested the seats after this period of time and if the seats held up to crash forces. It’s possible they look OK and would break on impact. If you have links to studies from Sweden or otherwise, please do share.

      As an environmentally conscious parent on a budget, I agree expiration dates on car seats seems to be in place just to make the manufacturers more money and causes a lot of unnecessary garbage, especially if parents don’t recycle what they can of the car seat.

      And as a certified child passenger safety technician, I have to tell parents car seats do expire and if you are using the car seat after the date of expiration and something goes wrong you will likely not be able to hold the manufacturer liable because you were not following the manufacturers requirements.

      1. I have a couple car seats used when my grandchildren come to town. When the children are not here, I store the car seats in our house away from heat, cold, sun and humidity. For these reasons and the fact that the seats have not been in an accident, I see no reason why the seats cannot be used after their expiration date. I do not install them, but have my daughter do those honors. It is better for both of our peace of mind. The fact that there are not clear cut regulations is a strong indication that an expired seat that has been cared for and not in an accident, is perfectly fine to use when installed correctly.
        Chalk this one up to planned obsolescence and our litigious society!

      2. Thank you, Amie, for replying to the critique. I think it’s important for there to be a critical approach and proper questioning. Yet it wouldn’t make much sense for the original article to be written in a loop of forever hypothetical doubts and responses to hypothetical doubts. So I appreciate your effort in engaging in the comment section and responding to doubts and critiques that way. Cheers

    2. While I wouldn’t want to use the same car seat for 20 years, I tried to be the well prepared grandmother when my daughter was pregnant. I am a firm believer that one of the biggest failures involving car seats is the failure to install the base correctly. I bought a Chicco KeyFit 30 for each of my daughter and her husband’s cars and 1 for mine. My plan was to have them installed in each vehicle by a professional. There would be no need to shuffle them from car to car, just double-check.to.make.sure attachments were secure.

      My grandson had other plans and was born 3 months early at just over a lb. After 21 months in the hospital, he was over the weight limit, so we purchased a different seat. I pulled the 3 original seats out of the boxes and they were expiring.in just a.few months. Super frustrating, as they had never been exposed to extreme heat or cold….they had never been used..

      1. That is frustrating. And surprising that they were still available for sale on the shelf apparently so far into their 6-year expiration period.

    3. Just planned obsolescence.
      Make more money and fill up landfills. Only an idiot would dream up this. Time for this to go away.

      1. Perhaps. RideSafer vests went several years without having an expiration date before the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) asked the manufacturer to add expiration dates to the vests.

  2. How is the plastic used in car seats different from the plastic used in the cars themselves? They’re more plastic (by volume) than metal these days!

    Also, why no mention of all the toxic VOC’s offgassing from all that plastic?

    1. Those are very good questions that I do not have answers for and are not addressed in the safety recommendations by NHTSA or Safe Kids.

  3. Very good question. Why not have an inspection, at appropriate locations; to extend the expiration date based on the inspection.
    Ed

  4. I have a car that is 9 years old, I’ve never heard of replacing them or the seat belt after six years. What about all the plastic and belts involved there, why would a car seat be any different??

    1. Generally speaking the manufacturers are not worried about the webbing degrading over time. Most seat belt safety locking components are made of metal so there is also not a concern about degradation over time with those.

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