Car Seat Laws and Best Practice
Many adults make decisions about car seat usage based on the laws and assume that the laws were designed to fully protect children. However, there is research-based evidence that the current laws are not sufficient to protect most children in an accident. The laws, set by each state, are minimum guidelines. (To learn about car seat laws in other states, visit the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety child restraint laws website). Due to the slow process of changing laws and philosophical disagreements about the role of government in personal rights, many states have not made changes to the child restraint laws to provide optimal protection for children.
The current law in California (effective January 1, 2005) requires children to be properly secured in a car seat (which includes booster seats) until they are at least 6 years old or 60lbs. Children under 6 years old must ride in the back seat of a vehicle with specific exceptions that are described in the law. (For the full text of the law, see the California Department of Motor Vehicles information on Child Passenger Restraints). Children over the age of 6 years old or over 60lbs are not required to ride in a child restraint and may ride in the front seat.
Specifically, California law states:
(a) A parent or legal guardian, when present in a motor vehicle, as defined in Section 27315, may not permit his or her child or ward to be transported upon a highway in the motor vehicle without properly securing the child or ward in a rear seat in a child passenger restraint system meeting applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards, unless the child or ward is one of the following:
- Six years of age or older.
- Sixty pounds or more
California law is not specific about when children must ride rear-facing, forward-facing in 5-point harness car seat, or in a booster seat. However, in order to properly secure children in a passenger restraint system, parents must follow the instructions provided with the car seat. This means that:
- All babies in infant seats must ride rear-facing;
- Babies and toddlers can ride rear-facing in a convertible car seat as long as the child meets the weight and height requirements specified for the use of the car seat in the rear-facing position;
- Children can ride forward-facing in a convertible or forward-facing only seat when the child meets the minimum requirements for forward-facing (most specify 1 year old and at least 20lbs, some specify a higher weight limit, a specific minimum height, and one specifies 2 years as the minimum age);
- Children can use booster seats when the child meets the size requirements (most specify weight and height requirements.)
Instead of following minimums specified in the laws, parents may choose to exceed these requirements and follow best practice. Car seat experts are making recommendations based on the current evidence and information so that adults may best protect children in vehicles. With recent and on-going improvements to car seats available in the United States, there are many newer seats that allow children to stay in a safer position (especially rear-facing and harnessed) longer than ever before.
These best practices include:
Rear-facing beyond 1 year and 20lbs (preferably to 2 years old or older)
The American Academy of Pediatrics has been recommending that children remain rear-facing to the limits of their car seats since 2002. In April 2009, the AAP updated their recommendation and specified, "Toddlers should remain rear-facing in a convertible car seat until they have reached the maximum height and weight recommended for the model, or at least the age of 2."
A rear-facing car seat protects a child’s proportionally large head and therefore the spine during an accident. A study published in the Journal of Injury Prevention in December 2007 found that children under two years old in forward-facing car seats are 4 to 5 times more likely to be seriously injured or killed than children in rear-facing car seats.
Rear-facing versus Forward-Facing Position (one minute video)
Extended Rear-Facing (Printable Brochure)
5-point harness car seat until child is 5, preferably 6 years old and over 40lbs
A 5-point harness keeps children properly positioned in the car at all times and the forces during an accident are distributed over more surface area, which protects children. This is the same reason race car drivers use a 5-point harness. Younger children do not have the maturity to properly sit in a booster with the seatbelt properly positioned all of the time, whereas the 5-point harness stays in the correct position to provide optimal protection in an accident. Children’s bones are also developing so there is a physiological reason why children are safer in a 5-point harness. Another consideration is that children who are too small to properly fit in a booster seat may slide out under the seatbelt in an accident.
Booster Seats Until Children Pass the 5 Step Test
Vehicle seats and seat belts are designed to fit older children and adults. By using a booster seat, children are lifted up so the seat belt properly rests on their chest bone and hip bone so they are protected in an accident. The 5-step test consists of the following criteria:
- Does the child sit all the way back against the auto seat?
- Do the child's knees bend comfortably at the edge of the auto seat?
- Does the belt cross the shoulder between the neck and arm?
- Is the lap belt as low as possible, touching the thighs?
- Can the child stay seated like this for the whole trip?
It is important remember that children fit differently in different vehicles and seat positions so a child may pass the 5-step test in some vehicles and/or seat positions and need a booster seat in other vehicles and/or seat positions.
Children Should Ride in the Back Seat
All passengers are safer in the back seat. Research shows that children under 16 who are sitting in the front seat are 40% more likely to be injured than children who are sitting in the rear seat. Even though some recommendations are that children under 12 years old should sit in the back seat, the data suggests that everyone – except the driver – should sit in the back seat.