September is National Child Passenger Safety Month! We’re here to do our part and raise awareness about car seat laws.
When it comes to your child’s safety in your vehicle, using the appropriate car seat or booster seat is the top priority. In this post, you’ll find a brief overview of different types of car seats, when and how to use them, car seat laws, and important safety tips.
Seat Belts & Car Seats Through the Years
As decades pass, new research and new safety devices reshape our standards. How your parents transported you may not be the best way to transport your own children. For example, check out these historical tidbits:
- The first safety-conscious child car seat was designed in 1962.
- By 1968, auto manufacturers like Ford and GM had their own car seats on the market.
- Seat belts were not mandatory features for American cars until 1968!
- In 1971, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration set requirements for all child car seats to be secured by belts and include a harness, though no crash testing was required.
- America’s first seat belt law was passed in 1984.
- By 1985, all 50 states had child passenger safety laws in place.
Now, all car seats and booster seats must meet U.S. federal safety standards before they can be sold.
At What Age Can Kids Sit in the Front Seat of a Car?
How old a child has to be to sit in the front passenger seat of a car depends on the child’s height and weight.
Specifically, Texas law requires children under the age of 8 or under the height of 4’ 9” to be secured in appropriate safety seats.
Below are some common milestones, associated styles of car seats, and their accompanying safety precautions. (Note: these are approximate suggested heights and weights; always check the specifications on your car seat’s label and follow them strictly.)
Rear-Facing Car Seats:
- Birth to 2 years old
- Under 40 pounds
- Under 3 feet tall
Infants and toddlers should be in rear-facing car seats until they reach the weight and height limits specified by the manufacturer of their first car seat. Most children use a rear-facing car seat until two years of age. Conveniently, many of these seats can double as a baby carrier or lock into compatible strollers.
Rear-facing car seats also provide the most protection in the event of a car accident. Why is a rear-facing car seat safer? The answer lies in physics. During a crash involving the front of your vehicle, a child’s head and neck will be jolted back and forth more in a front-facing car seat than a rear-facing car seat. Check out these car seat crash test dummy videos to get a clearer idea.
Front-Facing Car Seats:
- Over 2 years old
- Under 65 pounds
Once your child has reached the recommended weight and height limit on their first car seat’s instructions, they can move to a front-facing car seat with a harness for the next few years.
Don’t forget to use the tether! Front-facing seats come with tether straps that attach the top of the car seat to an anchor point in your vehicle. (As of September 2000, all new cars and minivans are required to have tether anchors; consult your owner’s manual if you cannot find yours.) Tethers are important because they provide extra protection and stability in the event of a crash.
- 4 years old – 8 years old
- Over 4 feet tall
- Over 65 pounds
When your child reaches four feet in height or exceeds 65 pounds, they can graduate to a booster seat. These simple seats exist to provide additional support for your child in the car. Instead of having additional straps or harnesses, they work with the car’s own seat belts. Children in this age and weight range who use a booster seat are 45% less likely to be injured in a crash than children using a seat belt alone.
No Car Seat:
- 8 years old – 13 years old
- Over 4 feet 9 inches tall
Most children will outgrow booster seats between the ages of 8 and 13. At this point, they can sit in the passenger seat without any assistive devices.
It’s important to realize seat belts were designed for adults weighing around 165 pounds. They can cause injury or even death if they are worn improperly by a small child. Before taking this leap, do a “fit test” to determine whether your child is ready.
To pass the seat belt fit test:
- Your child’s knees should bend at the edge of the seat while their back and bottom are flat against the seat and seatback.
- Their feet should touch the floor.
- The lower part of the seat belt fits snugly across their lap.
- The upper part of the seat belt fits across their shoulder and chest and does not irritate their face or neck.
If your child does not meet all of these conditions, continue using a booster seat until they’ve grown.
For extra protection, all children should ride in the back seat until age 13. This is because they could be injured if the front airbags are deployed. If a child must ride in the front seat, the seat should be moved back as far as possible.
As your child grows, be aware of when they hit these milestones and when to change their car seats. Many manufacturers now make all-in-one car seats that can be converted as your child grows, saving you money!
Car Seat Calculator
Still confused? Use the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s handy car seat finder to find the perfect seat for your child. Not only will it tell you the proper style, it’ll give you tons of specific brand names and models!
More Texas Car Seat Laws
In Texas, seat belts are legally required for all passengers, and for good reason: wearing a seat belt improves survival rates for front seat passengers in car accidents by 50%. Additionally, car seats reduce an infant’s risk of fatal injury by 71% and a toddler’s risk by 54%.
Texas law states children aged 8 to 17 – or of a height of at least 57 inches – must be wearing a seat belt if their seat has one. Children under the age of 8 – or shorter than 57 inches – must be secured in a child passenger safety seat system in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. Always make sure car seats are properly installed and adjusted to fit your child, with no loose pieces or straps that may pose a hazard.
Violating the Child Passenger Safety Seat Systems section of the Texas Occupant Restraint laws can result in fines of up to $250 or even a child endangerment charge, which is a felony under Texas law.
Car Seat Safety Tips for Parents
- Register your car seat.
It’s important to register your child’s car seat with the manufacturer. Every new car seat purchase includes a postage-paid registration card you can mail in, or you can register your car seat online. This step will allow you to get help repairing or replacing your car seat. It can also alert you to any safety recalls that may be issued. On that note…
- Regularly check car seat product recalls and expiration dates.
Be extra vigilant about this one if you are using a secondhand car seat. Additionally, did you know car seats have expiration dates? Manufacturers are aware of the ever-changing safety regulations, and they know car seat requirements may change as decades go by. That’s why they may include an expiration date of 6 to 8 years after the product is placed on the market. This date will be on a label on your car seat, or molded into part of the plastic.
- Ensure proper car seat installation.
Unfortunately, more than half of all car seats are installed improperly. Check their websites or YouTube for step by step installation tutorials, or have a professional do it for you. You can search for a Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician here. Tip: Most cars made after 2002 have a LATCH system, which stands for “Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children.” This feature helps parents install their car seat and provides more security than a simple seat belt would. Also, if a buckle, strap, or other piece breaks, don’t wait. Replace the car seat immediately.
- Always put the car seat in the back seat.
While you may find it harder to keep an eye on your child, it’s a much safer choice. All children should ride in the back seat until they reach the age of 13.
- Stay snug and strapped in.
Try the “pinch test” to determine if your child’s car seat harness is snug enough. Buckle and tighten the harness as you normally would, with the chest clip at armpit level. Then, pinch the harness strap at your child’s shoulder. If you are unable to pinch and lift any extra webbing, you’re good to go! The straps should not be tight enough to cause discomfort or leave marks on your child. Also look out for bulky clothing – like coats – that may cause the harness to fit improperly.
- No accessories.
Although there are plenty of clip-on car seat toys out there available for purchase, they may pose a threat to your child or strike them during a car wreck. “Toy tethers” are cords that are sometimes attached to car seats to keep a child’s favorite plaything within reach, but even if the toy is a soft stuffed animal, the tether can be a strangulation hazard.
- Avoid the hot seat!
Always check the temperature of the car seat before strapping your child in. Make sure there are no exposed metal pieces that may burn them. Summer heat can be brutal, so you may need to let your car “cool down” a bit before putting your child in it.
- Be cautious when carpooling.
If your child ever carpools or will be riding in a friend or relative’s vehicle, speak with the driver beforehand to ensure proper car seat safety is being practiced.
- Buckle up!
Good habits start young! Encourage your child to buckle their own car seat harness or seat belt as soon as they’re safely able to, and set a good example by always wearing yours.
Car Seats in Car Accidents
If a car seat is involved in a car crash, no matter how minor, dispose of it ASAP. Even if it looks “fine,” there could be damage to its structure and it could be ineffective in subsequent crashes.
If you or your child have experienced a car accident, it’s bound to be the most frightening moment of both of your lives. We know you’re feeling helpless and distraught, but we believe you and your child deserve to make a full recovery, both physically and mentally.
In fact, we’ve made it our professional mission to help you bounce back.
Stay safe this September – and always!
Since starting his firm in 1999, Stewart J. Guss has had the honor of representing clients from all over the world, helping them recover from even the most catastrophic injuries.
Today, thanks to a strong belief in those values of compassion, respect, and approachability, the firm has grown to employ over 120 legal professionals in numerous offices across 4 states, with nationwide reach.