Keeping your child safe in the car

Driving is dangerous. Regardless of how safely you drive some accidents are simply unavoidable. The dangers that adults face are increased for children, who are more likely to sustain severe injury in an accident. Motor vehicle accidents are the number one cause of death for children aged one to fourteen, so it makes sense that parents do whatever they can to protect their kids. In spite of this desire, conflicting information and changing views about child vehicle safety have made it difficult to know the best way to keep your child safe.

Before we get into what you should be doing, here’s what you have to do: Washington State Law requires that all children under 8 years of age or under 4’9” in height must be in a child restraint. All children under the age of 13 must be seated in the back seat of the car (if it is practical.) Not following these rules could result in a ticket.

Birth to 1 year old:

Your infant should be using a rear-facing car seat. If you purchase a convertible or 3 in 1 type car seat, your child will be able to remain in the safer rear-facing position for longer. You should keep your child rear-facing for as long as possible, but at least until one year old and twenty pounds. You should keep your child rear-facing until they exceed the limits of the seat.

Why is rear-facing safer? If it were possible, it would be safest for everyone in the vehicle to be rear-facing. Infants are at a higher risk because of their susceptibility to spinal cord injuries. Obviously, it is not possible for adults to be rear-facing, but for as long as your child still fits into the weight and height constraints of your rear-facing seat you should continue to use it.

Most accidents occur at the front end of the vehicle. In fact, 72% of all vehicle crashes are frontal or frontal-offset crashes, while only 4% of crashes are rear-end. It may be safer for your child to be front facing if they were in a rear-end crash, but the statistics say that is much less likely. Even if this were not the case, most front end crashes occur at higher speeds and consequently have a greater amount of energy that will be exerted onto your child. Therefore, protection from this kind of crash becomes paramount.

The seat allows the force of the crash to be spread out over the entire neck, back and head of your child. This keeps the energy from concentrating in one place and causing serious damage. The seat will also protect your child’s neck from snapping back in the crash. Rear-facing seats really are the safest thing for your child, so this isn’t the first and it won’t be the last time we’ll say it: keep your child in the rear-facing seat for as long as possible.

From 1 to 3 years old:

When (and only when) your child has grown out of the max capacity of their rear-facing seat, they can be moved up to a front-facing car seat. If your car seat is convertible or 3-in-1, note that the installation instructions will be different for each stage, so keep the manual to be sure that you are safely and appropriately installing the car seat in its new position. Keep your child in the front-facing car seat until they no longer meet the height and weight requirements.

From 4 to 7 years old:

After your child has grown out the front-facing car seat, they can be moved into a booster seat.  As with the front and rear-facing car seats, the booster seats still need to be placed the back seat of the car. The basic function of a booster seat is to raise a child up so that the adult seatbelt will be safe and effective. Shield-style booster seats are not recommended.

From 8 to 12 years old:

You should use a booster seat until your child has outgrown the height and weight limits. All children should sit in the backseat of the car at least until they are 13. Do not allow your child to sit in the front seat of the car or use an adult seatbelt unless they have completely outgrown all other safety options.

Is my child ready for a seatbelt? There are a lot of pronouncements made about when a child is ‘ready’ to start using standard safety restraints. Most will tell you that once the child is 13 years old or has reach 4’9” in height they are able to use a seatbelt without any other kind of safety mechanism. However, there are four measures that can tell you right away if it will be safe for your child to buckle up:

  1. Is your child tall enough so that their legs bend at the edge of the seat?
  2. Is your child mature enough to stay seated with their backs against the seat, without any slouching?
  3. Does the lap belt lay high on their thigh or low on their hips (not on their stomach?)
  4. Does the shoulder belt cross their shoulder and chest (not their arms or neck?)

If you answered yes to all these questions, your child may be ready to use a standard seatbelt.

Related:

Proper Car Seat Installation

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