As the weather turns cold and we start to plan holiday trips over the hill and through the woods, now seems like a good time to review an often overlooked item on the pre-trip checklist - car seats. I know I have often found myself questioning my own know-how and skills when it comes to the finer points of car seat and booster seat safety, but with the help of Rosalee at our local ODOT office, I feel a lot more confident in my ability to make the best choices for my family and also the resources to get help if needed.
Let me first say I was pleasantly surprised and encouraged by how eager Rosalee was to offer her wisdom and expertise in this particular area. It just re-iterated to me how wildly important and often overlooked this area of child safety is. When I originally emailed her, I outlined the basics of what I understood about car seat safety/guidelines for review and/or correction and also asked her several questions that I myself have encountered as well as items of concern I have heard brought up during various Mommy gatherings or Facebook posts.
So to start, let's review the basics:
1. According to Oregon law, children under 1 year and 20 pounds must be in an approved rear facing car seat. However, best practice is to encourage parents/caregivers to keep children rear-facing as long as the seat allows it. This is also recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics because of crash dynamics and how rear-facing seats are designed to protect a child’s neck and spine in a crash. While it my not be illegal to turn your baby around as soon as s/he reached that magical 1 year/20 pound benchmark, it is most definitely not recommended. Children are safest rear-facing.
2. There is no longer a recommended age for moving children to booster seats, (I originally thought the law was 4 years old and 40 pounds). Oregon law says that children must be in a harness system until they are 40 lbs. However, many car seat manufacturers are making harness systems that go to higher weight limits. So, if the harness system will allow a child to continue using it to say 65 lbs., then families are encouraged to continue utilizing the harness system. Just like race car drivers, children are safer in a 5 pt. harness. But yes, technically children can move to a booster once they are 40 lbs. Also remember that when making the switch to a booster seat, they cannot be used with lap belts only. You must have a lap and shoulder belt available to use a booster seat legally.
3. Children should remain in an appropriately sized booster seat until 8 years old or 4’9”. There is no longer a weight requirement. Plus, Oregon’s seat belt law states that seat belt systems must be used properly and it trumps car seat laws. So, if you have an small 8 year old and the seat belt does not fit them properly (meaning it rides up on their neck or their waist) then it is not being properly used. So, even though your child is 8 you could still be cited. Kids need to remain in boosters until they are big enough for the adult sized lap/shoulder belt to fit them properly.
This was a great review for me and I learned that I had several misconceptions about current car seat laws in Oregon. Above and beyond that, Rosalee offered a few more details about commonly asked questions that aren't necessarily addressed within the law, but I found very informative and helpful.
Q: Is it required to use the anchor system for car seats if your vehicle is equipped? (vs. seatbelts)
A: Never. You always have the choice to use the lower anchors or the seat belt. Use only one or the other and they are both equally safe. It is recommended that you use the top tether for all forward facing car seats.
Q: When is it appropriate to move your child from a high back booster to a no-back booster or is it preference?
A: They are both designed for the same use and the requirements are the same. The no-back booster must be used in a seating position with a vehicle head rest.
Q: What are the fines/punishments for inappropriate use of a car/booster seat?
A: The current fine for a class D violation (improper or no use of a seat belt/child safety seat) is $110. That may be changing in 2015 and does not include child endangerment or any other type of citation that may be issued.
Q: What can we do with our expired car seats? Is it legal to still use them? Is there somewhere they can be recycled? Why do they expire? Does just the base expire or the whole seat? Where can the expiration date be found?
A: The whole car seat expires, and Douglas County does not currently have a car seat recycling program. It is best to take the car seat apart, recycle the parts you can, and then take the remainder to the landfill. It is illegal and dangerous to use expired car seats. They expire because of the exposure of the plastic shell to the heat/cold in vehicles year round. So in a crash, the force can actually cause the plastic shell to break in an expired seat. Car seats typically expire 6 years from the date of manufacture. So you can find the manufacture date on the sticker on the seat and add 6 years, or some manufacturers print the expiration date on the plastic shell on the back of the seat.
Q: What is the biggest or most common mistake parents make when installing car seats? What about when choosing them?
A: There are a couple of common mistakes: Parents can’t get a tight installation; they don’t tighten the harness straps enough; or they don’t have the harness straps at the necessary height for the child using the seat. Choosing a car seat is different for everyone. The important thing is to choose a car seat that fits your budget, fits your vehicle, and that you will install properly every time.
Q: Can you go to any fire or police station to have your car seat checked out? Do you need an appointment? Are there any safety events scheduled in the area where this service will be offered? A: No, not all agencies have certified technicians. Right now you can call the following agencies who have certified techs: ODOT – 541-957-3657; Roseburg PD – 541-492-6760; Douglas County Sheriff’s Office – 541-440-4486; and Oregon State Police – 541-440-3334. Please call ahead for appointments, that works best for all of us – we can be ready and prepared and have the time needed to help. There are no more community car seat clinics scheduled for this year.
Q: Is it advisable to buy used car seats? What should we as parents look for if we choose to do so? A: We do not recommend that people buy used car seats unless they are buying from the sole owner of the seat, whom they know well and trust. Even then, be sure to check for things like expiration dates, straps and buckles that are in good repair, etc. You should never buy a seat from a second-hand store for these reasons: (1.) You don’t know the crash history of the seat (2.) you don’t know how they cleaned the seat (and if they didn’t follow manufacturer’s instructions they could really damage the harness system strength), and (3.) used car seats may not have all of the information stickers on the seat to help determine important information for recalls or expiration.
Q: Are there any resources or extra information you feel would be beneficial to include?
A: Please, please, please if you are an expectant mom, call us for help prior to your due date – at least 1 month before your due date.
I hope you find this information as helpful as I did and continue to stay up to date on this incredibly crucial topic. Our kiddos are the most important cargo we will ever carry, let's do it right!