car seat safety

Car seats are seats installed into a vehicle that are specifically designed to protect infants and children in the event of a crash. According to the National Highway and Transport Safety Administration (NHTSA), the installation of car seats saved the lives of 328 children under the age of five in 2016.

Despite this, car crashes are the leading cause of death for children aged between one and 13. Because of this, more and more parents globally are realizing the benefits of car seats.
As the chart (below) shows, the global market for car seats has grown year-after-year and is predicted to grow for the foreseeable future, particularly as parents in the developing world begin to use them.

Global baby car seat market size from 2017 to 2021 (in Million USD)


Simply buying the right car seat is only the first step in the process. Additionally, you need to install it safely (by far the most important part of safety) as well as ensure that it remains safe with regular inspections.

Furthermore, as your child gets older and bigger you need to adjust the fit on the car seat, as well as change the direction of the car seat. Safety is, therefore, an ongoing process when it comes to car seats – you need to constantly work to make sure your child is as safe as possible in their car seat.

types of car seat

There are four types of car seats you can use for your child. The three criteria to determine which is best for you are:

  • The size (height and weight) of your child

  • The size of your car

  • One you can install correctly each time

As a general rule, you should keep your child in a car seat for as long as possible (as long as your child still meets the seat’s height and weight requirements). A car seat is, everything else being equal, safer for a child than not being in a car seat. In addition, your child should remain in the back seat of the car until the age of 12.

The four types of car seats you can buy for your car, therefore, depend on your personal circumstances, although NHTSA has some recommendations:

Rear-Facing Car Seat

A rear-facing seat faces away from the direction of travel, meaning that the child is facing towards the rear of the car. This means that, in the event of a sudden deceleration (as in the case of a crash), the child’s neck and spine are better protected since the head is not flung forwards. In addition, the car seat is designed to provide a cradle to the neck and spine to cushion the effects of any crash.

Most car seats for newborn infants are rear-facing only. When the child outgrows their infant car seat, they can then move on to a convertible or all-in-one seat that comes with front-facing options (to save yourself from having to buy a different car seat when they are able to face forward).

However, children should remain in rear-facing car seats as long as possible. It is perfectly normal to have a 4-year-old in the rear-facing position.

They can remain rear-facing until they reach the manufacturer’s top height and weight limits for rear-facing. All convertible car seats available in the US currently allow for rear-racing at least up to 30 lbs, with many going up to 40 or even 50 lbs.

Sometimes manufacturer wording can be confusing. For example, if the label says “use only in rear-facing position with an infant weighing less than 25 lbs,” this means that if the infant weighs less than 25 lbs then you MUST rear-face the car seat, but it does not mean that when the infant reaches 25 lbs that you then must forward-face the car seat. There will be a separate sentence giving the maximum weight for your convertible seat.

Forward-Facing Car Seat

Forward-facing car seats have the child face in the direction of travel, meaning that they are facing the front of the car. These have a central harness and tether that protect the child in the event of a crash.

However, as the child graduates from a rear-facing seat to a forward-facing one, their neck and spine will be stronger, and won’t require the same level of support as it did previously.

Booster Seat

At some point, depending on their height and weight, your child will no longer need a seat that has additional support on the sides and back. In these instances, however, your child will still be too small to fit properly in a seat.

The biggest issue faced by this is the positioning of the seat belt, which does not provide optimal protection to child-size passengers. Therefore, a child will use a booster seat to raise them to the correct position.

If your seat has a headrest, the child may not need additional neck and head support from a booster seat (this is the case in most modern cars) and so the booster seat will be backless. If your vehicle doesn’t have headrests, or if you are simply converting your all-in-one seat, the child may need additional back, head, and neck support.

seat belt

At some point your child will no longer need a car seat at all and they will be ready for a seat belt. Again, this is dependent on the child’s height and weight. A seat belt should fit across a child’s upper thighs and sit tightly against the chest and shoulders. A seat belt should not cross a child’s neck or face. If it does, your child will require a booster seat.

Car Seats and Child’s Age

Age is often used as a general determinant of the correct car seat, because it can correlate with height and weight. However, this is not always the case for children so consider age as a general guideline, but use your child’s height and weight to hone what is best for them specifically. The chart below shows the recommended car seat based on a child’s age.

Again, the key caveat here is that a car seat is safer than a booster seat, so it’s a matter of personal circumstances as to which is better for you. Generally, however, the progression goes from rear-facing seat, to front-facing seat, to booster seat, to regular seat belt.

  • Rear facing
  • front facing
  • booster
  • seatbelt

Because many manufacturers sell convertible or all-purpose car seats, it may be possible for you to use one car seat throughout several years of your child’s life. However, even in this situation, it’s important to follow the above safety recommendations and not move your child to a front-facing seat too early.

You will also always have an infant in a rear-facing seat (in some states the hospital will check your car seat when you leave with your infant to determine the correct fit).

Installation Tips

Making sure your car seat is installed correctly is a critical part of the safety process. In particular, you need to make sure that the car seat is correctly tethered to the car. This will prevent it from either coming loose or moving in the event of an accident.

An improperly installed car seat can be extremely unsafe, so it’s worth taking the time to make sure that it’s fitted correctly. If in doubt, follow the instructions that come with the car seat, or speak to the manufacturer.


In all cars, there are two main ‘anchors’ that are designed to fit with car seats. These are distinct from things like luggage straps, which are located in various positions depending on the make and model of your car. The two types of anchors are:

Lower anchors

Lower anchors are in two seating positions in the back of the vehicle. These are usually in the area between the seats, located in the space at the back of the seat and above the bottom cushion. Lower anchors are two small bars onto which you can attach the car seat to ensure that the base of the car seat is attached to the car.

Tether anchors

Tether anchors are usually above the back seat of the vehicle, although they can also be on the floor or ceiling. Check the manual for the make/model of your own car to find their location. These are used to attached the car seat’s tether to hold it in place.


Once you have located the anchors, you can attach the car seat to them, which will hold it in place both with downward and backward force. The lower anchor attachments attach to the base of the car seat and pull it down into the seat of the car.

The tether is located on the top of the car seat. They are usually only present in forward-facing car seats (since their job is to prevent the car seat from moving forwards in the event of a collision. Attach the tether to the back of the car seat on the anchor point you found earlier.


Once you know where the key parts of the car seat are, you can begin installing the seat. The specific instructions vary greatly depending on the type and model of car seat that you have (i.e. a forward-facing car seat will be very different from a rear-facing car seat). If you have the manual, then you should use that to guide the installation. If not, check online for manufacturer resources.

The most important thing to check, regardless of the type and model of the car seat is that there is no movement when the car seat is properly installed.

If you grab the car seat and push and pull it (with force) it should not move away from its bindings. If it remains in place, then it means that the installation is most likely correct. If not, tightening the tethers and the anchor straps as much as possible should be your first step.

If you have any doubts as to whether your car seat is properly installed, you should not attempt to drive with your child in it. Once you know it to be secure and correctly fitted, you can place your child in the car.

How to Properly Secure Your Child in the Seat

First and foremost, make sure to review your car seat’s manual on how to secure your child in the safest way possible specific to that car seat type

For example, there are some differences when buckling a baby into a rear-facing car seat compared to a forward-facing car seat, as well as differences across brands and styles.

Here are some general guidelines to follow when putting your child into a car seat:
  • Make sure that none of the straps are twisted. A twisted strap can render the car seat ineffective.
  • The shoulder straps need to be at or below the shoulders (for infants) or at or above the shoulders (for children in forward-facing).
  • Position the chest clip so that it is at the child’s armpits.
  • Tighten the straps so they are snug. This will prevent the baby from slumping, which can make it difficult for them to breathe on top of it being an unsafe position in the chance of a crash.

    Does it pass “the pinch test” – if you can pinch the strap, it is too loose.

  • Do not put your child into a car seat in bulky clothing such as a coat or snowsuit. The straps need to be snug to the child’s body to ensure minimal movement in the instance of sudden stop or impact. You can add a blanket over the straps for warmth if needed.


Once you have installed your car seat, you should take it to be inspected. This will ensure that you have done everything correctly and will give a professional the ability to help you make it as safe as possible. Search online or ask your doctor for a certified technicians in car seat installation in your area who can help.

As your child grows into different car seats, you can get it inspected again. Make sure to ask them to inspect it with your child in it, so they can determine if the fit is correct and that the child is in the right position for the harnesses. Even if everything is correct, you will have peace of mind!


Once your car seat is installed and has been inspected and passed as up to standard, you can register it online with the manufacturer. This is an important step in the event of a recall or other safety announcement. In effect, it allows the manufacturer to contact you if anything is not as safe as it should be.

You can consider this to be an additional insurance policy. This shouldn’t, however, replace regular safety inspections, as you’ll only be told of a manufacturing problem with a car seat. There may be a problem with your individual seat that a manufacturer won’t be aware of.

A car seat has the potential to save your child’s life in the case of an accident, and therefore should be treated with a great deal of care and vigilance. You should make sure that your car seat is properly installed, maintained, and fitted to your child.

There are plenty of organizations that can help you with this task, so it shouldn’t be a daunting exercise. After all, for something as important as the safety of your child, it’s worth taking the time and effort to ensure that everything works as well as it should.

Sources and Further Reading


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