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.
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.
Manufacturers Alliance Child Passenger Safety says components may degrade over time. 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 make the plastic brittle.
Some say plastics take forever to break down so how is this possible? Let me give you an unrelated example. I have acrylic glasses; acrylic is a type of plastic. After about 9 years of having the glasses, the arms had cracks in them. These aren’t my everyday glasses, and they haven’t been dropped or otherwise physically harmed. An eye glass technician told me acrylic glasses tend to become brittle after about 6 years.
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. If the seat is installed and removed frequently or taken traveling, parts may become lost.
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 9 years, RideSafer vests did not have an expiration date. The manufacturer added an expiration date per NHTSA’s request in 2013.
Car seat manufacturers decide car seat expiration dates 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.
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
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