Car Seat Safety Tips from A Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician
Hi, I’m Rachel Rivera and I’m a car seat nut. Wait, no, that’s not right. I’m a Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician Instructor. But car seat nut is also fairly accurate.
I work for the Bakersfield Police Department as a Community Relations Specialist and I have been certified in child passenger safety for about 5 years. When I was first offered the opportunity to become a Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST), I jumped at it. I didn’t have any children at the time, but my husband and I wanted kids and I knew this training would benefit us as well as the community. So I signed up. Then I found out it was a 40-hour training course. (Jaw-drop!) I thought, “Forty hours to learn about car seats? What on earth could be so complex about car seats?”
Y’all, I could have taken the CPST training course two and a half times over and still felt like I had more to learn! Car seats are so much more complex than I ever imagined. And not just the seat itself, but the way it fits into your vehicle, and your seating arrangement, and your seatbelts, and your baby! There are truly so many things to consider.
So, what are the key things I want all parents to know?
First, I want all parents to know there are certified CPST’s all over the country. No one has to struggle with their child’s car seat and drive around hoping it’s safe. You can find a CPST pretty much anywhere in the US by going to cert.safekids.org and clicking on “find a tech” to search in your area. Having the knowledge of how to use your child’s seat correctly is invaluable. I encourage parents to schedule an appointment with a CPST before baby arrives, if possible. But I’ve worked with parents of children of all ages and still found ways to make their kids safer in the car. So don’t hesitate to reach out even if things seem like they have been fine so far. You just never know when that life-changing incident may occur and you don’t want your child to be any more vulnerable than they have to be.
The second thing I want parents to know is that everything they need to know about their child’s car seat and how to use it can be found within two little booklets: the vehicle’s owner’s manual and the car seat manual. I could probably count the stars faster than I could count the number of times parents have looked at me like I speak a foreign language when I ask them to grab their vehicle and car seat manuals. Or, even worse, the number of times parents have said, “Oh, I don’t have those anymore.”
You guys! I know they’re not thrilling literature, but knowing you hooked the correct latches into the proper slots can truly mean the difference between life and death. It is worth the effort. Your vehicle’s owner’s manual has an entire section on Child Passenger Safety and when you cross-reference that with the car seat manual, you’re far more likely to succeed at proper seat installation and use. Take the time to read both, and if there’s something that doesn’t make sense, call me or any other certified CPST and let us put those 40+ hours of training to work.
As for specific common errors I frequently encounter, here are the first few that come to mind:
- Utilizing more than one restraint system.
- The seat belt and LATCH system are (more often than not) NOT designed to be used together. If you’re securing your child’s seat with both, go check that car seat manual (which can also be found online).
- Installing in the center seat when your vehicle isn’t designed for it.
- Not every vehicle is designed to offer a center seat installation. If your vehicle’s 3-across bench seat doesn’t have six separate lower anchors, it’s probably not designed for a center seat installation with LATCH, but the seatbelt might still be an option. All of this information can be found in your vehicle’s manual.
- Turning baby forward-facing too soon.
- As of January 1, 2017, the state of California requires all children under the age of 2-years to be restrained in the rear-facing position. So until your little one turns two, or they outgrow they height and weight limits of their car seat, keep them rear facing. It really is the safest way for little ones to ride.
- Not adjusting the harness straps to the proper position.
- Children riding rear-facing (0-2+ years) need their harness straps to come from at or just below their shoulders. Children riding forward-facing (2+ years) need their harness straps to come from at or just above their shoulders. In both scenarios, you don’t want the straps too far away from their shoulders. Keeping the straps as close to the top of those little shoulders as possible is best.
- Using after-market car seat products.
- There are stringent Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for car seat manufacturers, but not for the companies or individuals who produce those cute little after-market goodies so many people buy for their car seats. None of the headrest mirrors, vehicle seat protectors, carrier handle toys, soft strap covers, etc., are required to meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. That means, they have not been crash tested the way your car seat has been, making it a big question mark as to how they will behave in a vehicle collision. In fact, many will market as being “crash tested” on their packaging, but since there are no standards, in theory you could throw a seat protector on the ground and call it crash tested. Be wary!
- Using a second-hand or expired car seat.
- Did you know car seats expire? Maybe you’ve heard that before but thought it was some kind of marketing ploy to make you buy more car seats. Well, friends, I’m here to tell you it’s absolutely true. The vast majority of car seats are made with plastic and over time—especially time spent heating up and cooling down—plastic becomes brittle. We place our most precious cargo in these devices, trusting they will offer security in the event of a collision. Make sure your child’s seat has not expired. You can do this by checking the little sticker (likely on the bottom of the seat) that contains the manufacture information. It will either say when the seat expires, or it may just tell you when it was manufactured. If the latter, go to the manufacturer’s website and see how long your car seat model lasts. Six to seven years used to be the most common “life span” of a car seat, but recently many manufacturers have improved their products and started turning out seats that offer 10 years of use. Each seat is unique, so check that manufacturer’s information to be sure.
As for second-hand seats, I will very rarely (if ever) recommend someone use one. To be clear, when I say “second-hand seats” I am referring to seats that have been used by someone you don’t know and you cannot track the history of the seat; if it’s expired, if it’s been in a car accident, etc. Typically, car seats shared among siblings are okay, but again, you want to always be aware of that expiration date as well as overall condition of the seat.
I recognize there are situations where perhaps a family cannot afford a brand new seat. There are options out there, and again, a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician will likely be able to connect you to resources to get a free or discounted car seat.
- If you yourself have a used car seat and you want to know the best way to get rid of it, here’s my advice: either wait for a trade-in event where you can exchange your old seat for store credit OR cut the straps, destroy the upholstery, and throw it away. It served its purpose by keeping your child safe. Let it “retire.”
- Excluding your partner from the car seat education because car seats are a “mom thing.”
- Sister, I hear you. I see you. I have been you! Do not leave your partner out of this part of the gig—they need to know this stuff too! I can’t tell you how fun it is when I get dads in these appointments who either feel like they already know it all or think they’re about to be emasculated—they always walk away feeling so empowered and eager to help moving forward. Friends! Bring your partner to your appointment if at all possible. You’ll feel stronger as a team and they’ll feel like a freaking super hero when I teach them how to get that perfect install!
Whew! See what I mean? I could go on and on… there is so much to know about car seats! Please don’t hesitate to reach out and ask me questions or schedule an appointment. I don’t care if you just found out you’re pregnant with your first or your youngest is just about to enter junior high! Let’s make sure your child’s car rides are as safe as possible!
The Bakersfield Police Department offers these safety services at no cost to the community. To schedule an appointment, call (661) 326-3053 or email BPDcommunity@bakersfieldpd.us.
I hope to hear from you soon!
Your Crazy-Car-Seat-Nut Mama Friend,