There's a decent chance your kid's car seat is installed wrong

A recent car seat clinic in Kingston, Ont. found that 100 percent of car seats were either unsafe or installed improperly.

Toddler strapped into car seat
Photo: NHTSA

Ensuring your kid’s car seat is safe and properly installed shouldn’t be that difficult, right? You read the instructions, maybe watch a YouTube video, follow the steps, and you’re good to go.

Or not.

In a recent safety clinic in Kingston, Ont., a whopping 100 percent of drivers were found to have unsafe or improperly installed car seats. Kingston Police and volunteers from Seats for Kids, a organization that specializes in ensuring caregivers know how to install car seats safely, checked car seats in 72 vehicles and found safety issues with every single one of them.

No doubt every parent spends plenty of time worrying about their child’s safety, so why do so many have trouble getting it right? “There are a lot different components to think about,” says Jen Shapka, an instructor with Child Passenger Safety Association of Canada. “And how you use the seat changes as the child grows.”

It doesn’t help, she says, that the manuals can be difficult to read. With all the steps, and so many warnings and alerts, it can be overwhelming. “It gets to the point that, when everything is important, nothing is important,” she says. She also points out that it’s not always about human error; when parents have car seats that are expired or damaged—as 15 were in the Kingston clinic—it’s often because parents simply can’t afford to buy a brand new one.

Some seats in the Kingston clinic needed to be removed and discarded. Others had harnesses that were positioned incorrectly, did not have tethers, had seat belts used improperly or were just not appropriate for the size of the child.

These issues, and others (click here for common mistakes) can easily be overlooked by a sleep-deprived parent who’s moving the car seat from one vehicle to another yet again or who isn’t totally aware of just how much their little one has grown. But in the event of accidents, they can make all the difference.

Still, there are some key things you can do to ensure you get it right every time. For one thing, keep the manual! Shapka says many parents confess throwing the manual away after the first time they read it, but as you move it to different vehicles or your child grows, it will come in handy to be able to consult the instructions again.

If you’re unsure if you’re following the instructions right, consider hiring a car seat technician. Shapka says that technicians and instructors like herself don’t just install the seat for you, but should also teach you to do it. “I have [parents] repeat [the steps] after me because then they have the muscle memory,” she says.

If you’ve seen a technician, but have questions come up down the road—perhaps you have a new vehicle or your child has grown—Shapka encourages parents to contact the car seat manufacturer for information, and says many of them have videos on their websites to help parents install their products correctly. “Installing a car seat is hard, but you can do it,” says Shapka. “And there are lots of resources to help.”

Read more:
7 car seat mistakes you’re probably making
11 car seat dos and don’ts
Car seat cheat sheet: Rear-facing seats

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