Car seat safety, and more specifically extended rear facing safety, have been a passion of mine since first browsing for a car seat for my daughter. This is such a “hot” topic among parents that I thought an interview with real questions and concerns answered by local Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST) would help others to make an informed choice!
We have personally had experience with Be Seat Smart VT (see us on the news!), Ali Wisehart CPST ([email protected]), and the Colchester Police Department. But this is just a small offering of all the car seat help available in Vermont!
There are many resources available in Vermont that can help you keep your kids safe whatever way you chose to install your seat.
Direct contact at University of Vermont: Amanda Biggs Child Passenger Safety Specialist, Trauma Services 847-1215
Our expert for this interview is Ali Wisehart. Ali is a child passenger safety technician in Fairfax. You can find her at wisehartparenting.com to make an appointment for a free car seat check.
Does the brand really matter? Does spending more money mean your child is safer?
Every car seat must pass the same standards in the US. There is no way to know whether one seat is safer than another since the tests are all pass/fail, and results are rarely released to the public. For the few that have been released, we have nothing to compare them to. No one knows whether it’s better to have a seat entirely made of plastic or a seat with some steel inside. Perhaps the steel withstands the crash better but transfers more force to the child, and perhaps the seat made entirely of plastic absorbs more crash forces than seats made with both. Or, perhaps it’s the opposite! There aren’t any tests to know for sure. All we know is that each seat has passed the same tests, and when properly installed and used properly, will keep children safe in an accident. When you spend more money on a seat, you are paying for a few different things, brand name, “bells and whistles” like strap covers, ease of recline/adjustment, higher weight and height limits, as well as other features such as lock offs or extra padding.
If neither the car seat manual nor the vehicle manual mention if it’s safe for the car seat to touch the vehicle seat, is it safe for them to touch?
There are three terms we use when talking about car seats not touching/touching the vehicle seat.
1. No touching, which means you can fit a hand between the car seat and the vehicle seat.
2. Light/gentle touching, which means you can fit a piece of paper between the car seat and the vehicle seat.
3. Bracing, which means you cannot fit anything between the car seat and the vehicle seat, and they are forcefully pressing against one another.
These terms often get confusing because not all car seat companies use them properly, or different representatives will use different terms to mean the same thing, and not all techs do either. When in doubt, it’s best to confirm by asking the manufacturer for an explanation of what they mean when they say light touching or bracing.
Each car seat has different rules on whether or not you can touch or brace the vehicle seat. The first place to start is with the car seat manual. Some seats, specifically some infant rear facing only seats, require a certain distance between the car seat or car seat handle and the vehicle seat. At the moment, no car seats allow for bracing/forceful touching (though some companies refer to light touching as bracing which can be confusing!) Many seats allow for light touching, but only if the vehicle does as well. To find out if your vehicle allows for light touching, first look in the airbag section. If you see anything mentioned about not hanging things off of the back of the vehicle seat, putting things in the pocket, etc. that means your car seat cannot touch the back of that seat at all. It may also say that you have “advanced air bags” which is the reason the car seat cannot touch at all. If you see nothing similar in that section, double check the car seat section to see if it mentions touching the seat back. If you see nothing in either section, you can double check by looking at your vehicle seat. You’ll see a little tag on the side of the seat that says “airbag” which means there is an air bag in the seat. A car seat touching a vehicle seat with advanced airbags can cause them to function improperly in a crash, either going off when they shouldn’t or not going off when they should. This is very dangerous for the person sitting in the front seat, so be sure not to move the seat back, even when the car seat is not occupied.
Is it okay if my son’s head is taller/higher than the car seat?
In general, when rear facing, a child’s head may not exceed the shell and/or head rest of the car seat. (Most seats have a specific rule such as 1.5in from the shell, 1in from the shell, or top of head even with the shell.) In general, when forward facing, the top of the child’s ears may not be above the top of the car seat. All car seats have different rules about when they are outgrown, both rear and forward facing, so it is best to check your car seat manual to be sure. Once any of the limits, height, weight, standing height, or distance from the shell, are outgrown, you cannot continue to use the seat with that child.
It freaks me out to see their legs hanging outside the seat while rear facing. What happens to them in a crash?
In a crash, everything in the car continues to move in the direction it was moving before the crash. In most crashes, you are traveling forward, and a rear facing child will continue to move towards the front of the car, including their legs. This means in a crash, all limbs move upwards (because they don’t weigh much) and towards the front of the car. The same goes for a passenger in a forward facing harness or a seat belt. There is no extra risk for injuries to legs when rear facing, but when forward facing, a common injury in low impact crashes is lower extremity injuries. There is more for the legs to come in contact with when forward facing, as well as more force on the legs since the entire body and car seat is traveling forward into that part of the body. The biggest risk for injury to limbs that are outside the shell of the car seat, would be any projectiles in the car that could come into contact with them. In a crash, the force of an object comes from the weight of the object multiplied by the speed acting upon that object, so even something as light as 5lbs becomes 150lbs of force in a 30mph crash. There are often few injuries in such a low speed crash, except for those that come from projectiles, such as your coffee mug, or a child’s toy. Always be sure to secure groceries, back packs, purses etc. and avoid bringing hard toys/heavy items into the car. If you have to transport something heavy, the safest place is in an enclosed trunk.
What if I have a small car that won’t fit my convertible seat rear-facing, or won’t fit two rear-facing seats?
There are many seats with higher rear facing limits that are compact front to back and/or side to side. Most convertibles take up less room front to back than infant rear facing only seats, so if you can fit your infant seat in your car, you can fit most convertibles. It may just be a matter of finding the right seat that fits with your car. Once a baby has good head control, you can put most car seats more upright, which gives you some extra space in the car. Similarly, convertible seats allow for a more upright install when a child reaches a certain weight and/or can sit unassisted. Some convertible seats with high limits even allow the car seat to go as upright as tolerated by the child and vehicle seat. This is a good reason to discuss what seat to buy with a tech before buying it so you know if it will fit or not. A lot of stores will allow you to try out seats in your car before buying as well. Many car seat safety sites have articles comparing the most compact extended rear facing seats. If you have a small car, are very tall or have a very tall partner, it’s extra important to do your research before purchasing a seat.
What if I get hit from behind? Is my child safe rear-facing?
In a rear end collision, it is still safest to be rear facing. During a crash the shell of a rear facing seat absorbs most of the impact, and cradles the child. When forward facing, the child absorbs the crash forces and they are spread along the harness. Rear facing also places the child’s head, the most vulnerable part (25% of their body weight!), inside the protection of the car seat shell during the most severe part of the crash – the initial impact. It doesn’t matter which direction the car is hit from, that initial force of the crash, the head is protected the most when rear facing. There are a few documented severe crashes where the car was hit from behind and the child’s legs were right at the impact site, and were uninjured rear facing.
In a crash, there are three parts, the vehicle hitting whatever it is hitting, the body of the child coming into contact with the harness/car seat, and the internal organs hitting the inside of the body. When rear facing, the second and third part of the crash happen at the same time, and the crash forces are more equally spread along the shell of the seat, which supports the spine and neck and keeps them in line. In a crash when forward facing, these parts happen one after the other and cause more damage to the body as the crash forces are spread along the harness and child instead of the shell of the seat.
But my child HATES sitting rear facing. Why would I want to make them scream, bored, etc.
When it comes to safety, the child’s opinion isn’t one of the variables to take into account. After all, if your child wanted to run into a road with heavy traffic, you wouldn’t let them no matter what, right? The same goes for car seat safety. Sometimes babies cry in the car, sometimes big kids cry in the car, what it comes down to is, they need to be kept as safe as possible. Often parents think turning the child around will fix whatever problems they are having, but usually either it doesn’t, or if it does, there is a whole new set of problems. Forward facing children often complain their legs hurt because they are dangling for long periods of time and have no way to cross them or rest them on anything. Sometimes we have to make tough choices to keep our kids safe, and this is one of them. Often you can find tips and tricks to alleviate these issues such as bringing soft light weight toys for a child that claims to be bored, or singing, playing music, or doing something else comforting for a child that cries in the car. If you have a baby or young toddler that is crying during most car trips, go see a tech and get your seat checked. Sometimes the angle of the car seat or positioning of the straps is making it very uncomfortable for the baby to ride in the car.
A sibling is sitting forward facing and my younger child wants to sit like them. Any tips?
If the sibling still fits in a rear facing car seat, turn them back rear facing. If not, then it’s the same conversation you probably have had with your forward facing child about why they cannot sit in a regular seat belt, or in the front seat like mom or dad. It simply isn’t safe yet. You can go over all the benefits they have of still being able to rear face, safety, recline for sleeping, a place to put their legs, a view of what’s going on behind the car, a place to hold toys etc.
National Child Passenger Safety Guide Certification Training Program Technician Guide March 2014.
AAP Technical Report March 2011