Child car seat installation: Don’t install it yourself. Have an expert do it.

If You Installed Your Kid’s Car Seat Yourself, It’s Probably Unsafe

If You Installed Your Kid’s Car Seat Yourself, It’s Probably Unsafe

Advice for parents
Sept. 18 2015 7:06 PM

Don’t Trust Yourself

Your child’s life depends on whether her car seat is installed right—and you probably did it wrong. Leave it to the experts.

Child in a rear-facing seat, May 24, 2007.
Correctly installed and ready to hit the road.

Courtesy of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Last Sunday, my husband and I shuttled our kids to a playground, hoping to distract them long enough for us to read a paragraph of the newspaper. When we arrived, I was greeted by a woman holding a clipboard. “Are you here for the free car seat safety check?” she asked gleefully. I could already tell my husband was shooting me a look: Don’t you dare. My husband, who installed both of our kids’ car seats, is very handy and smart, so he wasn’t worried that he’d put them in incorrectly. He was worried this “free car seat safety check” would rob him of a half-hour and subject him to bureaucracy (recall there was a clipboard) and condescension, both of which he is allergic to.

But come on. I’m a parenting columnist. I know the stats: 3 out of 4 parents install their kids’ car seats incorrectly. One recent study found that a whopping 95 percent of new parents made critical installation mistakes with their rear-facing car seats, but that those who had consulted car seat technicians were 13 times more likely to get it right. So to me, this would be a half-hour well spent. I sent the rest of my family ahead and said sure, I would oblige.

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What happened in the next 20 minutes was, yes, a tad annoying (I had to fill out separate paperwork for each kid!), but it was also entertaining (one policeman nursing a wounded finger wandered over to tell us he had gotten cut on a knife that had been wedged between the back seats of a car he had just checked; the owners had yelled at him for getting blood on their upholstery). But what really stuck with me was that, even though my husband had, for the most part, installed our seats correctly, the experience was still very useful.

That’s because certified technicians assess not just your car seats but also how they might best be configured in your particular car; they can also point out ways other than car seats that you can improve your family’s safety. As an example, the policeman who looked at our car noticed that we had put a stroller in the back of our crossover SUV but hadn’t secured it. Tsk, tsk. In a crash, it could become a projectile and, in his words, “lop a kid’s head off.” Indeed, if you’re driving 40 miles an hour when you crash, your stroller could hit your kid’s head at 40 miles per hour. The solution: Tie it down with strong nylon cords.

Technicians can also teach you installation tricks and things you didn’t even know about your own car. This week I called “the Car Seat Lady,” a New York City–based pediatrician named Alisa Baer who is also a nationally certified child passenger safety instructor, and let me tell you: This woman knows her stuff. She told me things about my model and year of Volvo that were news to me—and she never even saw my car. Among other things, she explained that if I didn’t want to tie down my stroller, Volvo has a steel cargo barrier available that can be locked into the roof and divides the second row of back seats from the trunk, to help keep things from flying forward in a crash, and that I could buy it directly from Volvo. She also told me she had just taught a neat installation trick to a parent who had a Volvo with reclining back seats (although my 2012 model, she said, didn’t have these); if you recline them, install the child seat, and then push the seats forward, it tightens the child seat, making it safer. Point is, these people can help you optimize how and where you install your child seats based on the exact model and year of car you drive—details you’re probably not going to get from a Britax manual.

Certified technicians can also personalize advice based on how many kids you have and what they are like. Baer told me that I might want to move my son, who is in a forward-facing car seat, into the center position in the back seat and put my daughter, who is in a rear-facing seat, behind the driver or passenger seat. That’s because forward-facing seats are less safe than rear-facing seats, so putting him in the center will help to minimize his risk of injury from a side-impact crash. Also, my 4-year-old technically meets the age and weight criteria for a backless booster seat. But Baer told me that this kind of seat is only good for kids who will, among other things, sit up straight for long periods of time (mine won’t) and won’t try to play with the seat belt (mine will). So no, she said: He’s not ready. Finally, technicians can give you advice on the kind of seat you might want to buy next. “There are more than 30 convertible seats, so choosing one can be overwhelming—but certified technicians can guide you,” Baer says.

So even if you’re an MIT-trained engineer, you should still take advantage of car seat safety checks. They’re free, and they really could save your kids’ lives. Don’t know where to find one? Search for locations via seatcheck.org or safekids.org. If they advise you to go to a police station, call and make an appointment first so that you can be sure a certified technician will be there. (It’s also smart to ensure that any technician you see has, in fact, been certified by Safe Kids, the governing body.) There’s a lot more to keeping your children safe in the car than just following installation instructions. It’s worth giving up 20 minutes to get things right.

Melinda Wenner Moyer is a science writer based in Cold Spring, New York, and is Slate’s parenting advice columnist. Follow her on Twitter.