May 1999

Is your child’s car seat installed properly? Probably not

Mark Baldwin loves kids. He has four of his own; two of them adopted from among the seven foster children he and his wife have cared for. Because he works in ORNL’s Office of Safety and Health Protection, it stands to reason that Baldwin often has safety uppermost in his thoughts.

Baldwin recently completed a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration child passenger safety training course on proper use of vehicle child safety seats. Under Tennessee law, all children under age four must be in one when riding in a vehicle.

Despite their mandatory and universal use, the NHTSA and other safety organizations say that a vast majority of child restraints are improperly used. One voluntary check showed 97 percent were installed incorrectly, averaging three to four errors per seat!

If you are a parent or grandparent, that means the odds are you have not installed your child safety seat correctly. Baldwin, whose NHTSA-based training was sponsored by an organization called National Safe Kids Campaign, cites a number of reasons why.

“There are some combinations of vehicles and seats that just won’t work, and you can’t make them work,” Baldwin says.

“Most of us hate to read instruction manuals. They can be confusing or can even require a call to the company. But we must read them. Automobile owner’s manuals also have instructions on how to install car seats, and it’s important to consult them. “Car seats also have different features—weight and height limits, straps, harnesses, adjustments—whose uses vary depending on how they are used, such as facing forward or back. Any of these variables, if used improperly, can spell disaster in an accident.”

Baldwin says the most common problem with seats is that the seats themselves simply aren’t tightly strapped to the car. Getting them tight often depends on how the seat belt mechanism works, so again it’s important to know both how the seat works and how the car works with the seats.

“I actually get in the seat with my knees and press the child seat down with my weight, and then tighten the car’s seat belt,” Baldwin says. “They have to be tight, with no more than one inch of movement from side to side or toward the front of the car.”

Baldwin adds that it’s also important to have the child strapped securely and correctly in the seat. Harness straps should be in the correct slot (consult instructions). The harness retainer clip, the plastic piece that slides up and down the strap, should be at armpit level. Infants in rear-facing seats should never be installed in a seat with an air bag.

In fact, Baldwin says, children under 12 should always ride in the back seat. Until they are one year old and weigh at least 20 pounds, infants should always ride in a rear-facing seat. After that, a front facing seat is recommended.

Children between 40 to 80 pounds (usually between ages four and eight) should always ride in a booster seat. These may be used with harnesses or without, in which case the vehicle’s shoulder restraint is used. Baldwin stresses that the boosters are important because without them lap restraints often ride too high on a child—across the abdomen instead of the lap—which could result in serious or fatal internal injuries in a collision. The boosters help put them in the correct position.

Baldwin stresses that it is important for adults to wear their own seatbelts. It sets a life-saving example. Besides the child seats and belts, there are other ways to protect your children inside vehicles, such as checking to see if any objects inside the vehicle could become lethal missiles in an impact. And don’t even ask him what he thinks when he sees kids riding down the highway in an open pickup truck bed.

Baldwin was quoted in a March 1999 Reader’s Digest article titled “The Alarming Truth About Safety Seats.” While taking his Safe Kids training, he identified a chagrined but grateful mother’s second-hand car seat as a model under recall.

That article gave a number of resources for car seat safety information, including the NHTSA (, 1-888-327-4286) and the National Safe Kids Campaign (, 1-800-441-1888). Consult them for more information. And if you hear about a local volunteer child-restraint safety check, take yours by for an inspection. What an expert might catch could save a very precious life.  —B.C.