5 Basic Car Seat Rules Every Parent Needs to Know

A smiling child buckled into his car seat.

I often get calls from parents planning a big road trip, asking about the car seat laws in every state they plan to visit. Of course, I tell them all the specifics but before I hang up, I make sure to let them know about what might be the most important law of them all: The Law of Physics.

An object in motion (like a child in a moving car) stays in motion until acted upon by an outside force.

Working in the field of child passenger safety for the last 30 years, I have recited this law too many times to remember. It’s the same law that makes car crashes so dangerous and the same law that makes car seats so important.

When driving, a child is moving along at the same speed as the car, so the child is the object in motion. In a crash or sudden stop, that child stays in motion until something stops it from moving. In a best-case scenario, a child is held in place by a harness – that’s the outside force that slows and eventually stops the child’s movement. By slowing down before the actual hard stop or crash, injuries are reduced and, many times, lives are saved. Adults benefit from a seat belt in much the same way. The seat belt keeps them in the car and keeps them positioned in front of an airbag. 

A car seat is most effective when it’s used and installed correctly, so for Child Passenger Safety Week, I’m asking parents, grandparents and caregivers to take a good look at their child’s car seat to make sure it follows these 5 basic rules of correct car seat use

  1. Select the right car seat for your child’s age, weight, height and development. This means no booster seat for babies. Buy and use the seat that fits your child now.
  2. Use your car seat in the correct direction. This is especially important for kids under age 2, who are safest when rear facing. Just follow the instructions on the car seat.
  3. Pick the safest location in the car, which for kids under 13 is always the back seat.  Some states have a law, others do not. Regardless, studies show that kids under 13 are five times safer when they are secured properly in the back seat.  
  4. Use the harness correctly and exactly as the instructions recommend. Make sure the harness is tightly buckled and coming from the correct slots (check car seat manual). Now, with the chest clip placed at armpit level, pinch the strap at your child's shoulder. If you are unable to pinch any excess webbing, you're good to go.
  5. Install correctly in the car. There are different rules based on science for your car, your car seat and your child, so pay attention to the instructions. Use the Top Tether for every forward-facing child in a seat with a harness. Once your car seat is installed, give it a good shake at the base where the seat belt fits. Can you move it more than an inch side to side or front to back? A properly installed seat will not move more than an inch.

If you have any questions, Safe Kids is here for you. We have a terrific web app called the Ultimate Car Seat Guide and you can also find a Safe Kids car seat checkup event or inspection station.  

If you follow the 5 basic rules of correct car seat use, you will meet and often exceed every car seat law I can think of, including the law of physics. More importantly, you can feel reassured that you are doing everything possible to make your child safe no matter where you travel.