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Car Seat Safety

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Keeping Kids Safe in the Car

Car crashes are a leading cause of fatal injury for Washington children. Keep your children safe for travel by choosing the right child restraint (car seat, booster seat, or seat belt) and by following all instruction manuals carefully.



Child Restraint Laws

Every state and country has its own child restraint laws.  In the state of Washington, RCW 46.61.687 requires:

  • Vehicle occupants of any age must be restrained properly. The driver is held responsible for properly securing all passengers under the age of 16.
  • Children under age 13 must ride in the back seat, whenever practical to do so. 
  • Children must ride in an appropriate car safety seat until they reach age 8 or 4’9” tall, whichever comes first. Car safety seats (i.e. car seats or booster seats) must be used according the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Children who have reached age 8 or 4’9” tall may ride in an adult seat belt IF it fits properly (see “Seat Belt Readiness Test - Step 4" below).  If the seat belt cannot be adjusted properly on the child’s body, continue to use a car safety seat until it does.

community-carseat-checksChoosing the Right Seat

Washington law does not offer specific suggestions for when it is safe to move a child from one type of car seat to another.  The following 5 steps reflect current “best practice” recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

Rear-facing Car Seat (birth to age 2)

  • Children up to age two are five times safer in a rear-facing car seat
  • Keep your child rear-facing to the weight / height limits of their convertible car seat (30-50 pounds, depending on the model).
    • Shopping tip – infant car seats with low harness slots fit newborns best!  The next step will be a convertible seat – choose higher rear-facing weight / height limits for added safety!

Forward-Facing Car Seat (age 2+)

  • Children over age 2 (and/or have reached the rear-facing limits of their convertible car seat) should ride in a forward-facing car seat with a 5-point harness up to weight / height limits of the car seat.
  • Forward-facing seats are often rated up to 50-65 pounds.  Some are rated to 80+ pounds.
    • Shopping tip – choose seats with higher weight limits and high harness slots to keep kids snug in their harness LONGER!

Booster Seat (up to 4’9” / 8-12 years old)

  • Children who have reached the weight or height limit of their forward-facing car seat should ride in a belt-positioning booster seat until the adult seat belt can fit properly.
  • Always use booster seats with a seat belt that has both lap and shoulder portions (never with a lap-only belt).
  • If your child isn’t mature enough to leave the seat belt in place while in a booster, a 5 point harness is a safer choice.  Look for a harnessed car seat with higher weight/height limits that fit big kids longer.  
    • Shopping tip – high-back boosters offer whiplash and side-impact protection!

Seat Belt in the BACK SEAT

  • Your child can safely ride in the adult seat belt after passing the “Seat Belt Readiness Test”:
    • Scoots all the way against the vehicle’s seat back; AND
    • Knees can bend at the edge of the vehicle seat; AND
    • Feet are flat on the floor; AND
    • Lap belt fits low across the upper thighs (not up on the belly); AND
    • Shoulder belt crosses between the neck and shoulder. 
  • There is no single age / weight / height that can predict proper fit of a seat belt in every vehicle – conduct the “Seat Belt Readiness Test” in every vehicle your child rides in.
    • Shopping for a car?  Look for vehicles that have lap-and-shoulder seat belts in every seating position – much safer than a lap-only belt!

Seat Belt in the FRONT SEAT (age 13+)

  • Children under age 13 should ride in the back seat, whenever possible.
  • When riding in the front seat, slide the vehicle seat back as far as possible.
  • Check for airbag warnings.

Car seats, vehicles, and children come in all shapes and sizes.  Choose a car seat that fits your specific child and can be installed properly in your specific vehicle.  Consider ease of use, car seats that are easier to adjust and install are more likely to be used correctly.  Be wary of used car seats, as they can be damaged, recalled, expired, or have missing parts and pieces. 

Harnessing Basics

  • For a rear-facing car seat – route the harness through the nearest slot “at or below” the child’s shoulder. 
  • For a forward-facing car seat – route the harness through the nearest slot “at or above” the child’s shoulder
  • Adjust the harness snugly on the child’s shoulder – if you can pinch the harness between your fingers (at the child’s collarbone) – it’s too loose.
  • Place the chest clip at armpit level.
  • Do not add any aftermarket car seat accessories that were not made specifically for your car seat (additional padding, harness covers, belt-tighteners, etc). They have not been crash-tested with your seat and can be dangerous.

Installation Basics

  • Location? Consult your vehicle owner’s manual for any restrictions on which seating positions you can use to install a car seat. 
    • Washington law requires that children ride in the back seat, wherever practical to do so. 
    • Never install a rear-facing car seat by an active front passenger airbag.
  • Angle? Consult your car seat instruction manual for guidance on how to achieve the proper recline angle. 
    • Rear-facing car seats are installed in a semi-reclined position – look for level indicator, often found on the side of a car seat. 
    • Forward-facing car seats are usually installed in an upright position.
  • Attachments? Consult your vehicle owners manual to determine which seating positions have LATCH or tether anchors (if any), and how to lock your seat belts.  Install your car seat with either the LATCH system OR a seat belt, not both at the same time. 
    • Route your seat belt or LATCH anchors through the correct belt path on the car seat.
    • Push down on the car seat while tightening the seat belt or LATCH straps.
    • If installing with a seat belt, make sure to LOCK it.  This may involve using a locking latchplate, locking retractor, locking clip, or built-in lock-off.
    • Grasp the car seat next to the belt path with one hand, and tug directly to the side – if it moves more than one inch from side-to-side, tighten the belt again.  If you are unable to achieve a tight fit, try a different seating position or a different car seat.
    • Forward-facing car seats have tether straps and connectors – read and follow the tethering instructions in your instruction manuals.

Need help with your car seat?  The Mary Bridge Center for Childhood Safety offers car seat inspections at three MultiCare locations:

Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital
Tuesdays, 9am - 10:30am
No appointment necessary
Safe and Sound Building / 1112 S. 5th Street, Tacoma, WA
Call ahead for holiday or weather-related closures
Phone: 253-403-1417

MultiCare Auburn Urgent Care

1st Wednesday of each month – by appointment only
202 Cross Street SE, Auburn, WA
Call 253-403-1417 to schedule an appointment

Good Samaritan Hospital
3rd Wednesday of each month – by appointment only
Children’s Therapy Unit / 402 15th Ave SE, Puyallup, WA
Call 253-403-1417 to schedule an appointment

If you have further questions about choosing, adjusting, or installing your child’s car seat, call the Mary Bridge Car Seat Help Line at 253-403-1417.