Car Seat Safety: How to choose the right one – and install it correctly

Mother buckling child in car seat

There are countless things expectant parents must prepare before their baby arrives, but a car seat should be at the top of the list.

Family Times recently talked to Deputy Doug Roser from the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office about choosing the right car seat – and how parents can ensure it is installed safely and correctly.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

1. Can you tell me a little about your background/experience in this area?

I took a car seat install class about four years ago to learn how to properly install and inspect car seats. It was a weeklong, 40-hour class. So, I got certified in that by New York state, and now I’m actually an instructor candidate, so I’m in training to become an instructor to teach other car seat techs.

2. Why is it so important to have the right car seat – and to install it properly?

Like I tell people, having the right car seat is only half the battle. The other half is making sure it’s installed properly in the car and to make sure it actually fits the car properly. Not all car seats fit in every car, so you have to get a car seat that fits your car, not just a car seat that has all the bells and whistles, because when you go to install that in your car, you may find out that it doesn’t fit. So, you’re first fitting the car seat to the child, and then fitting the car seat to the car when you’re making your selection. Having it properly installed is important because if it’s not installed properly, it’s not going to perform like it should and protect the child like it should.

3. Are there any laws about car seats that parents should be aware of?

The laws changed within the last few years. On Nov. 1, 2019, New York state came up with a little bit more of a stringent car seat law than there is in other states. Now all children under two years old have to ride in a rear-facing car seat, which is a bit little tricky for some parents, because car seats are made to be sold in all 50 states, and a lot of stickers on the car seat say that the child has to ride rear-facing until they are 1 years old. Well, that’s in a lot of other states, but in New York state, it’s actually 2 years old.

Any child under 4 years old must ride in a child safety seat, which would be forward-facing with a five-point harness. And then any child that’s under 8 years old has to ride in a child restraint system. A system would include something else along with the seatbelt, so a high-backed booster or just a plain booster seat. They make a safety vest that a child can put on that actually routes the seatbelt properly over their collarbone. So, they still have to be in some type of restraint until their 8th birthday.

4. What should parents consider when choosing a car seat?

There are all different prices of car seats. You can get a forward-facing car seat at Walmart for $49, or you can get a forward-facing car seat at Walmart for $449. What we like to tell parents is they are all crash-tested and rated the same. To be sold to a consumer, they all have to pass a crash test. So, that $49 car seat is still going to perform just as well in a crash as the $449 car seat. We always tell parents those bells and whistles that come extra are really more for parental conveniences, but all car seats sold on the shelf are crash-tested and rated the same. So, everything that’s sold in the store is safe, whatever the price point may be.

5. What are some ways parents can ensure a car seat is installed safely and correctly?

The number one thing is going to be following your car manual to see what location the car seat can be installed. So, if you looked in your car manual, they actually have a whole section on car seats and point out exactly where in the back seat a child seat can be installed. You want to start with that. Then you want to follow the car seat’s manufacturers guide, because that’s going to tell you exactly how to install it, and it will give you the height and weight limits for the seat. So, you’re going to want to follow those two manuals. And, if you’re in doubt, you can always call the Sheriff’s Office. We have trained technicians working on every shift that can assist you.

6. Are there any resources available locally for parents?

We always do car seat inspections. We hold car seat check events. Anybody at any time can call our community relations unit and say they need to get a car seat inspected. I go out to people’s houses to check them. People come down to headquarters. They can email our community relations question line. There are many resources. A lot of times, I’ll have a parent call and ask me a question over the phone and say, “I did this. I followed this, this and this. Is that all I have to do?” And then I guide them through the process that way as well. There are other techs in the area. Some fire departments have them, some other police agencies. In the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office alone, we have 15 technicians that are deputy sheriffs and are spread out over all the shifts.

7. Do you have any other tips or advice?

It’s very important to follow and read all the manuals that come with the car seat. Another tip that I like to tell parents is when you buy a new car seat, make sure you send in that little perforated card and you register it, because that’s how you’re going to get recall notices. Like say there’s a problem with the strap, or a buckle needs to be replaced, they don’t know that you have the car seat unless you register it. And if you do, you’ll get a notification and receive a replacement part. There’s actually been some catastrophic incidences with these where a whole seat has been recalled and somebody has gotten an exchange sheet because they filled out the warranty registration card. So, it’s pretty important to do that.

One more important tip: even though people are going to want to help you out and give you their hand-me-down, you’re going to want to be very cautious when you’re getting a seat from somebody else. You don’t want to use a seat that has ever been involved in a car accident, whether there is a child in the seat or not. Once a car seat is in a vehicle that has been in any type of accident, that seat needs to be replaced. And it’s a New York state law that your insurance company, if there is a car seat in your vehicle, they have to cover it and replace it under your insurance. So, it’s very important that the seat get replaced if it’s been in any type of accident.

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