Tight is right when installing a child safety seat in your car


Use of seatbelts and child safety seats - thanks in part to laws requiring their use - has skyrocketed in recent decades.

But if there's anything that frustrates an otherwise competent parent, it's trying to put a small child securely in a properly installed car safety seat before heading down the road.

"It's quite complicated," said Shea Moore of Chatham, Ill., who brought her 16-month-old daughter, Rosalie, to a recent safety seat installation clinic. "... It usually takes two of us to make it tight. I have to put all my weight on it."

Indeed, a number of even experienced parents and grandparents learned a thing or two about child safety seat installation at the free clinic, and the line waiting for one of the available stations was almost 10 cars deep just two hours into the three-hour event.

According to a study by Safe Kids Worldwide, child safety seats can reduce the risk of death in an automobile collision by 71 percent for infants and 54 percent for toddlers if - and this is a big if - the child restraint systems are used properly.

But one study of the misuse of child safety seats showed at least one major error in the use of restraints in four out of five cases studied.

With a confusing array of forward-facing and backward-facing models, straps and buckles, slots for incorporating the seatbelt - not to mention variables such as the type of back seat upholstery, the age of the car and whether children are small or large for their age - it's no wonder parents often don't have the hang of securing their kids safely and properly.

The recent clinic offered parents a number of tips for making sure safety seats are installed correctly and offer the maximum protection for small children - even for parents (or grandparents) who did a lot of things right.


For example, Rosalie's seat was in the middle of the back seat. That is where Ed Vehovic of the Illinois Secretary of State's office recommends placing the seat to offer the most protection for a side-impact collision.

If you use multiple safety seats, your best bet remains putting both of them in the back seat. Front seat air bags and child safety seats are a dangerous combination.

But as Vehovic and Megan Eairheart of the Illinois Department of Transportation went over a checklist of tips and hints for Rosalie's seat, they noticed an unused tether attachment. Moore said she felt better knowing that the tether was attached, offering another level of safety for her daughter.

"I'm glad to get it correct," she said.

Keep it tight

The most common mistake when installing a safety seat involves loose straps and seatbelts.

Ideally, a safety seat should not move any more than one inch side to side after all the anchors and/or seatbelts are attached. But, even experienced parents came to the clinic with loosely installed seats.

Vehovic said the main reason is because the shoulder belt that is threaded through the safety seat's base has too much slack. Here's the solution:

After you thread the seatbelt through the safety seat's base and click the seatbelt into place, pull the rest of the seatbelt out from the slot where it enters the passenger cabin. (For a shoulder belt, it's the slot to the upper left or upper right of the back seat.) Keep pulling until you hear a click -- that means the seatbelt is in emergency mode. Don't let go of the slack yet.

It takes some muscle to do this correctly, and it's likely a two-person job that will require a little trial and error. One of you should put your weight on the car seat base, pressing it as tightly as you can into the car's back seat. The other person should slowly feed the seatbelt slack back into its storage area until the base is tightly secured.

Too much of a good thing

Newer cars come with small bars tucked under the back seat where car seats can be anchored with simple clamps. Do not secure the safety seat with both anchors and a seatbelt. You need only one or the other, but try both options to see which one provides the more secure position for the car seat.

That's slick

Leather upholstery offers durability, but it's also a slippery surface for a plastic safety seat.

The solution: put a piece of mesh shelf liner (the kind used in bars or restaurants) between the leather upholstery and the safety seat. It can offer more "grip" to the safety seat and prevent it from sliding around. (You don't need to do this if your back seat has cloth upholstery.)


Beyond seat positioning and installation, Vehovic said parents frequently make other mistakes simply by allowing other objects in a car.

For example, he told several parents and grandparents at the safety seat clinic that they should not shade their children with screens that attach to windows with suction cups. The reason: In an automobile collision, it's likely the force of the impact will send the screens flying through the car - and there's a good chance it could hit a child. Instead, use adhesive cellophane shades that stick to the inside of a car window.

Speaking of installing items in the car ... Vehovic advised against installing mirrors in the back seat that some parents use along with the rear view mirror to keep an eye on the child.

"If the baby coughs, Mom's going to look at the baby, and guess what she's not looking at?" he said. The answer, of course, is the road, other vehicles, pedestrians, etc.

New seats

The average life expectancy for a car seat is six years. Although using a hand-me-down seat might save you money, it might not offer as much safety for a child.

Never use a safety seat that's been involved in a collision.

As children get older/bigger

According to, the child safety seat you use will depend on the age and size of your child.

  • Infants should ride in rear-facing child safety seats as long as possible (a minimum of 12 months old and about 20 pounds).
  • Children between 1 and 4 years old and who weigh between 20 and 40 pounds should use a forward-facing safety seat in the back seat of your vehicle. The harness straps/slots should be at or above the child's shoulder level, and the harness clip should be at the armpit level.
  • When your child reaches 40 pounds, use a booster seat. Always use both the shoulder and lap belts with the booster seat - never use just the lap belt. The lap belt should rest across your child's upper thighs, not across the stomach.
  • When your child reaches 4-foot-9 and 80 to 100 pounds, he or she can use the vehicle's seatbelts.

Did you know?

Transportation-related injuries were by far the leading cause of unintentional deaths among children 0 to 19 years old in Illinois between 2000 and 2005, according to a 2006 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationally during that same period, the highest death rates were among children who were occupants of motor vehicles (rather than those who were struck by moving vehicles).