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Motor vehicle injuries are still a leading cause of death among children. Many of these deaths can be prevented with appropriately selected and installed car seats.

Unfortunately, many parents are not adhering to the minimum standards and laws for child passenger safety, let alone the best practices recommended by many organizations.

Chaffee County Public Health (CCPH) has had a child passenger safety program for seven years and employs three certified child passenger safety technicians – or car seat techs. Over the years we have witnessed everything from outrageous and unsafe car seat installations to minor mistakes.

Any error – big or small – can lead to serious injury in a crash. In fact, 90 percent of car seats we have checked have been installed incorrectly.

Installing a car seat correctly can be confusing. Here are some tips to making sure your children are safe on the road:

Location: Children age 12 and younger should always sit in the back seat, whether that is in a car seat, a booster seat or a seat belt. When installing a car seat, the center seating position in the back seat is the safest, whenever possible. That is not always possible, especially when installing multiple seats, so making sure it is installed properly in any position is key.

Rear-facing versus forward facing: Children should remain rear-facing as long as they are within the maximum height and weight for that seat, typically age 2 and potentially much longer. Children should remain forward-facing in a harness until reaching the maximum height and weight for that seat. Many children could be in a harnessed car seat through age 7 or longer.

Boosters: Parents are very quick to switch their children into a booster, sometimes as early as age 4. However, many car seats allow children to be in harness until they are 65 pounds. Remember, a booster seat is not a car seat. All it does is “boost” the child up so the seat belt hits them in the right places on their body. A harnessed car seat is much safer if the child can still fit in it.

Seat belts: As with boosters, many children move into seat belts too soon. Colorado law states that they must be in a booster seat until they turn 8. But most 8-year-olds should still be in a booster seat. Use the five-point test to see if they can be in a seat belt:

1. Does the child sit all the way back against the seat?

2. Do the child’s knees bind at the edge of the seat?

3. Does the belt cross the shoulder between the neck and arms?

4. Is the lap belt as low as possible, touching the thighs?

5. Can the child stay seated this way for the whole trip? If a child is constantly putting the seat belt behind their back or under their arm, a booster seat might still be necessary.

Harnessing: The harness straps of a car seat should be tight enough that you cannot pinch any of the webbing. The child clip should always be at armpit level. If the child is rear-facing, the harness straps should be at or below their shoulders. If the child is forward-facing, the harness straps should be at or above their shoulders. Be careful of puffy jackets or snow suits. Children should either not wear a jacket or wear a thinner jacket, ensuring the harness is actually tight enough.

Installation: Most of the mistakes we see come from the installation. Car seats should not move more than 1 inch side to side and front to back. A loosely installed seat is the most common mistake we see, and the consequences can be devastating in a crash.

Another very common mistake we see is not using the top tether with a forward-facing car seat. A top tether will prevent the car seat from moving forward about 8 inches in a crash. Children’s spinal cords are not flexible, so reducing forward head movement in a crash is very important.

Even with all of this information above, there are still many more tricks, tips and safety features when it comes to installing car seats. The best thing you can do is have your seat checked by a certified technician. Please call or text Emily at 207-1398 to schedule your free car seat appointment.

Emily Anderson, RN, BSN, is a public health nurse at Chaffee County Public Health.

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