Roughly 73 percent of child car seats aren't installed correctly, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. There's a good reason -- car seats are complicated.
There are lots of decisions to make that can affect your child's safety in the event of a crash, including which seat to buy based on your child's age, height and weight and the best fit for your vehicle, where to put the seat, whether the seat should be rear- or forward-facing, and how to tighten the car seat properly, says Eileen McDonald, program director at the Johns Hopkins Children's Safety Center in Baltimore, Maryland. To make matters worse, 20 percent of parents wing it, neglecting to read any instructions on how to properly install their child restraints, according to a recent NHTSA survey, which interviewed 4,167 drivers at child restraint inspection stations across the country. Even those who do read the manual don't always get it right. Here are five of the most common car seat installation boo boos:
Safety slip-up #1:
Using the wrong harness slot.
When using the car seat in the back seat in rear-facing mode (recommended for kids under age 1, but preferably until age 2), parents in the survey typically chose a harness slot that was more than two inches above the child's shoulder, which means the harness will be too loose. When the seat was in the forward-facing position (after age 1 at the earliest), parents typically chose the harness slot that was 2 inches below the child's shoulder. This could cause too much forward movement during a crash.
Fit tip: For rear-facing seats, use the slot at or below your child's shoulder. For forward-facing seats, use the slot at or above your child's shoulders.
Safety slip-up #2:
Not using the harness chest clip.
NHSTA found that parents either didn't use the harness's chest clip or position it too low, near a child's tummy.
Fit tip: To keep your child secure in the event of a crash, adjust the chest clip so it's at your child's armpit level.
Safety slip-up #3:
Installing the car seat too loosely.
The survey showed that many car seats could move two inches from side to side or from to back. That's not secure enough.
Fit tip: Install the seat with the seat belt or lower attachments so that it can't move more than one inch from side to side or front to back. Be sure to attach the top tether strap as well. A car seat that's installed tightly won't move much in a crash, which reduces your child's risk of injury.
Safety slip-up #4:
Slacking off on the harness straps. Your child should be snug in her car seat. Many parents allowed more than two inches of harness strap slack. In the event of a crash, that could be enough leeway to allow your child to be ejected from the seat. Forces during a collision can be that strong and unpredictable.
Fit tip: Pinch the strap at your child's shoulder. There should be no strap slack.
Safety Slip #5:
Bad booster seat belt placement. When your child graduates to a booster seat (at around 4 to 7 years of age), the lap belt shouldn't be across your child's stomach or rib cage. In a crash, your child's hips could slide under the lap belt, typically known as "submarining."
Fit tip: Position the lap belt so that it lies snugly across your child's thighs, not her stomach. Also, make sure the shoulder belt lies across your child's collar bone, not her face or neck. Keep in mind, "The purpose of a booster seat is to position the seat belt correctly on your child who will probably not fit in an adult seat belt until they are approximately 4'9" tall," says Allana Pinkerton, a child passenger safety advocate at Diono.
Pinkerton adds that, in her experience, many parents fail to use the top tether that comes with all convertible car seats. "Parents aren't sure where to attach the tether so they just tuck it away in the back of the seat," she says. A better bet? Attach the tether to the top tether anchor (usually a metal bracket) in your car, which helps fasten the top of the car seat to your car. "Using the top tether will reduce how far a child's head will go forward in an accident," Pinkerton says.
For more information on how to install your child's car seat safely, visit www.safercar.gov/therightseat. Double check your work by getting your child's car seat inspected by a certified car seat safety technician. You can even have a technician install the car seat for you. Visit NHTSA to find a car seat inspection station in your area.