Common Car Seat Errors

By Lisa Carneal, CPST
Learn more: The Car Seats Group

Are you properly securing your child into their car seat? The vast majority of parents are not, and most of them are not aware of it.

Below is a comprehensive list of some of the most common errors parents make when installing their child's car seat or buckling their child into it. Motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of injury and death to babies and young children, so it is vital that parents do all they can to make car trips as safe as possible. If you need help to remedy any of these issues or are unsure of how to fix them on your own, please contact a certified child passenger safety technician (CPST) to help you. Even if you think you have everything right, it's always a good idea to have your seats checked. It is a CPST's job to help parents use their car seats properly. If you can't find a CPST with which to have a private appointment to go over your car seat installs, many fire departments have a fitting station with CPSTs available by appointment or during drop-in hours. Check with your local government or health department to see if there is a fitting station in your area.

Go here to find a CPST near you.

You can also visit this message board, frequented by many passionate CPSTs, to ask questions.


LATCH and Seat Belt Errors

* Using LATCH in a center seating position when it is not allowed by the manufacturer - most vehicles do not permit you to install a car seat in the center, using the two inner LATCH anchors from the side seating positions. Check your vehicle and child restraint manuals. If nothing is specifically mentioned to allow it, don't do it.

* Using LATCH and a seat belt together - you must use one system or the other, not both. Either method is safe when used correctly, so go with the method that gets you the easiest/best install.

* Not using the top tether anchor when the lower LATCH anchors are used for a forward facing seat - the top tether MUST be used when a seat is installed forward facing with LATCH.

* Using the LATCH system beyond its weight limit - most vehicles and car seats have a weight limit for using LATCH, usually 40 or 48 lb. Check your vehicle and car seat manuals for this information. Sometimes it is not in the vehicle manual and you will need to contact the manufacturer by phone, or ask a CPST to look up the information for you in their LATCH manual. If the vehicle and car seat manuals defer to one another, err on the side of caution and assume a 40 lb limit.

* Incorrect seat belt routing on a booster - make sure to read and follow the instructions for how to route the seat belt correctly over your child. Many boosters have arm rests that need the lap belt routed under them instead of over.

* Seat belt not locked - a seat belt must lock at the retractor or the latchplate to hold a car seat securely. If it locks at the retractor, you must pull the seat belt out as far as it goes and then feed it back into the retractor. Sometimes a ratcheting noise is audible. Gently pull on the belt to test and make sure it is locked. Ask a CPST for help in identifying the locking mechanism on your seat belts if you are unsure.

* Loose car seat install - a car seat must be installed tightly enough that there is an inch or less of movement in all directions at the belt path when pushed or pulled on.

* Incorrect belt path used on convertible seat install - you must use the belt path designated for the type of install you are doing. Usually the rear facing belt path runs under the child's bottom/legs and the forward facing belt path runs behind their back.

Harness Errors

* Harness in the wrong position - straps must come out at or below the shoulders for rear facing; at or above for forward facing.

* Harness twisted - straps must lay completely flat every time the seat is used. A twisted harness will not distribute weight correctly in a crash and could cause injury.

* Harness too loose - straps must be very snug; you should not be able to pinch a horizontal fold in the harness webbing at the child's collar bone

* Improperly routed harness - make sure that the harness is going through the same slots on the cover as on the shell of the seat. This mistake usually happens when the straps are moved to a different slot or when the seat has been taken apart for cleaning.

* Chest clip out of position (usually too low) - the chest clip should be at armpit level at all times.

* Thick coats/snow suits/buntings/seat liners (including the Bundle Me and similar items) - bulky items can cause the harness to be too loose to adequately protect the child, and items that go between the baby and the seat/harness can interfere with correct positioning of the harness. To test the thickness of a clothing item, put it on your child and then strap them into their car seat with the straps tightened normally. Unbuckle them without changing the harness tightness and remove the item of clothing. Strap them in again, still leaving the harness at the same tightness. If you can fit more than one finger under the harness at the collar bone, it's too loose and the item of clothing is too bulky for the car seat. To keep kids warm safely, use fleece jackets/snowsuits/ponchos, "shower cap" type covers for infant seats, or, after the child is securely buckled in, put a blanket on them or put their coat on backwards.

Car Seat Limit Errors

* Forward facing too soon - a child must be at least one year old AND 20 lb before forward facing. Keep in mind that this is a very bare minimum; children are MUCH safer rear facing for as long as possible. Research has shown rear facing in the second year of life to be 5 times safer than forward facing.

* In a booster too soon - children, especially those under 40 lb, are best protected in a 5 point harness. A child must fit the seat belt appropriately and be able to stay correctly positioned in a seat belt for the entire car ride if they are in a booster. Most children under age 5 do not yet have this maturity, and most of them are also too small to get a good fit. Use the harness on your child's forward facing car seat until they outgrow it or at least until 5 years and 40 lb.

* In a seat belt too soon - children need to pass the 5 step test before they can safely ride in an adult seat belt without a booster.
1. Does the child sit all the way back against the auto seat?
2. Do the child's knees bend comfortably at the edge of the auto seat?
3. Does the belt cross the shoulder between the neck and arm?
4. Is the lap belt as low as possible, touching the thighs?
5. Can the child stay seated like this for the whole trip? If the answer to any of these is "no," the child should ride in an appropriate child safety seat or booster.

* Using a seat beyond its limits - read your seat's manuals and labels carefully to be sure your child fits within the limits. Many of them go to 80 or 100 lb as a booster, but only to 40 or 50 lb with the harness. Height limits are more arbitrary since children are all proportioned differently, but weight limits are set in stone. A rear facing seat is generally outgrown when the child reaches the rear facing weight limit OR their head is less than an inch from the top of the car seat's shell. A forward facing harnessed seat is generally outgrown when the child's shoulders are above the top harness slots OR the tops of the child's ears are above the shell of the seat OR or the child reaches the weight limit on the harness, whichever happens first.

General Misuse

* Aftermarket accessories (head positioners, body padding/positioners, strap covers, hanging toys, under car seat mats/upholstery protectors, mirrors, suction cup window shades, seat belt tighteners/ratchets, bunting bags/liners, custom car seat covers, etc.) - if it did not come with your seat or is not specifically allowed by your car seat manual, don't use it. The less "stuff" involved in your car seat install, the better. Nothing extra should go between the car seat and vehicle seat, the baby and the car seat, or the baby and the harness. Toys, mirrors, and window shades can come loose in a crash and injure passengers. Mats can interfere with an install. Many manufacturers will void the seat's warranty if aftermarket products are used. There are no safety standards for these items, so even those that claim to be "crash tested" or "meet all federal safety standards" (there are none!) cannot be trusted as safe.

* Using an expired car seat - car seats are made mostly of molded plastic, which degrades and becomes brittle over time. Because of this, along with ongoing advances in safety research and technology, car seats have an expiration date and should not be used beyond it. Check your car seat's manual and the shell of the seat itself for this information. Most brands have a 6-7 year lifespan from the time of manufacture (NOT from the first use of the seat).

* Using a seat that has been in a crash - due to damage that cannot be seen from looking at the car seat, most manufacturers say to replace their seats after ANY crash, even a minor one. Check your seat's manual to see what the manufacturer's policy is, and always err on the side of caution if you have any doubts.

* Using a seat with unknown history - buying a used seat from a stranger or a consignment shop, or renting a seat can put your child at risk because you don't know if the seat has been maintained appropriately, if it has ever been in a crash, if it has been recalled, etc. Don't put your child in a used car seat unless you can investigate the history of it and trust the previous user's answers with your child's life.

* Improperly cleaning a car seat - most seats have a removable cover that is hand or machine washable, but harness/LATCH/tether straps should NEVER be washed in a washing machine or with harsh cleaners. This can stretch them or otherwise weaken the fibers. Check your seat's manual for specific instructions on what can be done to clean your seat's straps. If they are beyond cleaning, you can usually order a replacement set from the manufacturer. Be very careful to reassemble the seat correctly after cleaning it.

* Using a car seat for a function it does not perform - make sure you follow the instructions for your seat. Infant seats should NEVER be installed forward facing, and convertible seats that do not become boosters should not be used as a booster.

Related articles:

Do You Use Your Carseat Correctly?

Car Seat Safety: Rear Facing as Long as Possible

Car Seats are for Cars

AAP: Car Seats Lower Oxygen Levels

American Academy of Pediatrics on "Bucket Babies" and SIDS

The Car Seats Group


  1. Maybe its just in Canada (or Ontario) but I'm reasonably sure all forward facing car seats require a top tether whether you use the LATCH or not.

    Also most car seat manuals state that a rolled blanket or towel should be used between the child restraint and the car seat to get the proper angle of incline. Pool noodles are also commonly used by car seat installation technicians.

    For reasons beyond my understanding it seems all child restraints are designed assuming that that the seat they are installed in will be completely level with the ground. I've yet to see a car that's less than 30 years old where that is true.

    Also I think the NHTSA guidelines on using a child restraint after a crash are reasonable. At the very least after a minor crash the child restraint should be used until it can be replaced with a seat of similar quality rather than just whatever can be bought cheaply. Its better than no car seat.
    Toddlers weighing 9 to 18 kg (20 to 40 lbs.) are to travel properly secured in a forward-facing child car seat that complies with CMVSS and must be anchored to the vehicle using the tether strap (usually found on the back of the car seat).

  2. to mystic_eye_cda:

    I am a Canadian carseat tech, and yes, in Canada, it is law that all forward-facing carseats are tethered.
    A pool noodle is the first choice to use in helping acheive the proper angle for a rear-facing carseat, though yes, some manuals state that it's OK to use a rolled blanket or towel. A noodle is a better choice because it isn't as likely to compress or shift.

    As for continuing to use a crashed seat? No. I wouldn't do it, and I would NEVER recommened anyone else do it, either. If you have "no car seat", then your child shouldn't travel in the car until you have a suitable replacement. Nobody knows what sort of unseen damage may have been done to the crashed carseat, in even a "minor crash", and if another minor, or a MAJOR crash were to occur, you don't know how the previously-crashed seat would perform in the next collision. It's just not a chance I would be willing to take.

    As an add-on comment to the link you posted, it is now recommended that children rear-face past the minimum "1 year and 20lbs" mark. Many carseats now available in Canada have rear-facing limits of 30, 35, or even 40lbs, which allows many children to rear face to 2 or 3 years old (or beyond!).

  3. As for the crash part - I was surprised when the lead trainer at my CPST class mentioned her Britax was in a collision and she's happily using it. The rules were: no airbags were deployed, the car could drive away, no one required hospitalization, no visible damage, and the door nearest the seat was not impacted.
    ~Melissa Evans, AAHCC, CLE, CPST

  4. My husband was in an accident but here (in Texas) even though there wasn't a child IN the car seat that was installed in his vehicle at the time of the accident...the insurance company (by state law) was REQUIRED to replace it with the seat of our choosing. We opted to replace it with the exact same type/style of seat we already had (we had researched and it was the safest option we'd found) even though it wasn't the most expensive option available. I was so pleased with how things worked out but we had to ASK them to replace it and I wouldn't have known to do that if one of the Mommies in my playgroup hadn't mentioned it was state law for them to replace it! Now I remind matter how insigificant the damage may seem you just truly DON'T KNOW and I'm NOT willing to risk my child's life and well-being. Period.

  5. Australia is so behind with their car seats and laws. 6 months you're allowed to FF here. The highest a rear facing seat goes to is 12kg, but most are only 8-9kg. Sad really.

  6. I think Britax is the only seat manufacturer which stipulates that a seat can be used if it has been in certain types of accidents. All other seat manufacturers require you to replace the seat, and your insurance is required to comply with the manufacturer's recommendations. I know we were in a very small fender bender and we had a check in 2 or 3 days to pay for the new safety seat we bought. We chose to go ahead and buy a new seat and mail the receipt to the insurance company.

  7. A friend called her carseat's manufacturer and asked if she could use the LATCH and the seatbelt. The manufacturer said it was okay to use both. Can you clarify or cite a source for me to give her more information?

  8. What are the dangers of using the latch system in the middle, if it secures the seat tight enough???
    The latch system in the middle gets the car seat much tighter than the lap belt does.

  9. There is no way a manufacturer would say yes to both. She needs to call back. Using both essentially subjects the seat to two back to back crashes as the belts are going to tighten as different rates. It isn't worth it to take the chance that the seat can handle that.

  10. Britax is not the only manufacturer that defers to the NHTSA recommendations for using a car seat after a crash, but most of them do simply say not to use the seat after a crash.

    The first issue with "borrowing" LATCH anchors in the center is that the anchors are not the same distance apart as they are if the seat has its own LATCH anchors. Some car seat manufacturers do not approve using non-standard spacing like this, and sometimes the strap won't be long enough to fit it very easily. The second issue is that if you remove all the upholstery and padding, the LATCH anchors are welded to a steel beam in somewhat of a U-shape, and if you are only using one side of each "u," the forces are pulling on the metal in a different direction than was intended. This may be ok or it may not - what it boils down to is that they are not tested this way, so we don't know for sure.

  11. I've also expressly contacted britax and they stated it is not only ok to use both the seatbelt and the latch + Tether but it is recommended and the safer alternative.

  12. Some manufacturers are ok with using both seatbelt AND LATCH. If you are unsure, read your manual or call the company. MOST manufacturers haven't crash tested their seats using this method of installation, so they don't know if it is safe or not. I have heard rumors that there are crash tests in the works with seatbelt and LATCH at the same time so we will know more in the future. In the meantime, follow the guidelines the manufacturer has put in place for your particular carseat.

    About LATCH in the center position: Some cars only have LATCH anchors in the two outboard positions. In that case, it is usually not OK to clip your carseat into one from one side and one from the other, unless your vehicle user manual states otherwise. Some cars have their own LATCH anchors in the center position, and of course it is ok to put your car seat there.

  13. Thanks for this comprehensive info... I sometimes find all the info about LATCH and seatbelt a little overwhelming.. even confusing. Thanks Maddie for your comment..

  14. I think top brands like Britax eventually will find new standards for carseats to attach any vehicle, of course they must remain compatible to both seatbelt and LATCH then.



Related Posts with Thumbnails