Driving with kids: a guide for parents and caregivers

Child seat basics

Children are safest when riding in the correct type of restraint for their size and age and when the restraint is used correctly.

Rear-facing child restraint: This type of seat is for infants and toddlers. Young children should sit rear-facing as long as possible, until they grow too big for the restraint's height or weight limit. That may not happen until age 2 or older. You can find height and weight limits in the owner's manual that comes with your seat and also on the label affixed to the seat.

Never put a rear-facing restraint in the front seat. With the child's head close to the dashboard, the force of an inflating front airbag could be deadly.

Rear-facing child restraint

Forward-facing child restraint: Once a child is too big for a rear-facing restraint, it's time for a forward-facing restraint. Children can ride in these harness-equipped seats from about age 2 to 7 years. This type of restraint should also be used as long as possible, up to the height or weight limit of the child restraint. Some forward-facing seats have weight limits as high as 80 pounds.

Forward-facing restraint with harness

Booster seat: Kids too big for child restraints should use belt-positioning booster seats until adult belts fit right. For some kids, that's not until age 12.

Booster seat

Boosters are intended to be used with lap/shoulder belts. In the U.S., such belts have been required in all rear seating positions since 2007. If a child needs to ride in a vehicle that only has a lap belt available, it's best to use a child restraint with a built-in harness. If that's not possible, it's still safer to use the booster with the lap belt than to restrain the child with the lap belt alone (Kirley et al., 2009).

Seat belt: To use seat belts, NHTSA recommends that children should be able to keep their back against the seat, with their knees naturally bent over the seat edge and their feet flat on the floor.

Older child using adult seat belt

Once tweens or teens graduate to seat belts, remind them of proper use. Don't let kids put the shoulder belt behind their back or under an arm, where it provides no protection at all. Make sure children ride restrained in back at least through age 12.

Purchasing a child seat

A new child safety seat is generally the best option. Used or hand-me-down seats may have been recalled or damaged in a crash. If you must use a pre-owned seat, make sure it has a manufacturer label so you can check for recalls.

Most manufacturers recommend that their seats not be used if they are more than 6 years old. Check with the manufacturer.

Don't purchase or use a seat with cracks in the frame or missing parts.

After a crash, child restraints should be inspected carefully. They should be replaced any time there's damage such as cracked plastic, bent metal parts, or stretched or elongated belts or harnesses. However, damage like this doesn't occur in most crashes.

When IIHS subjected child restraints to successive crash tests at high speeds, most of the restraints kept their structural integrity despite minor damage (Meyerson & Lund, 2001). Investigations of restraint durability by the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia found no visible damage to child restraints after 50 consecutive low-speed tests; X-rays revealed no hidden damage lurking beyond the scope of visual inspection .

Whether you are buying a new or used seat or accepting a hand-me-down, be sure to register it with the manufacturer so that the company can contact you in the event of a recall.

Installing a child seat

Consult the manual that came with your child seat and also your vehicle owner's manual for instructions on proper installation.

Many infant seats snap into a base that attaches to the vehicle. Make sure the base and seat are tightly secured according to instructions in the manuals for the infant seat and vehicle.

Child restraints for infants and toddlers and infant seat bases need to be secured to vehicle seats using either seat belts or the LATCH system. If done correctly, either type of installation will keep your child safe.

LATCH, which stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, is a system designed to make it easier to attach child restraints to vehicles securely. Child restraints have lower attachments that can be connected to anchors in the seat, replacing the vehicle seat belt as the primary attachment to the vehicle.

Lower anchors can be used until your child reaches the maximum weight that can be accommodated by your child restraint and vehicle. Check your child restraint manual and vehicle owner's manual for more information. In general, the vehicle seat belt should be used for installation if together your child and child restraint weigh more than 65 pounds combined.

Installing a child seat using LATCH

Top tethers attach to anchors on the vehicle's rear shelf, the seatback, floor or other location. Although the top tether is considered a component of LATCH, it should be used whenever a child restraint is installed forward-facing, whether it's installed using the seat belt or with the lower anchors. The top tether provides an additional attachment to the vehicle seat and prevents the child from moving too far forward in a crash. Some child restraint manufacturers also may encourage the tether when rear-facing, so it's important to review the instructions in the child restraint owner's manual.

LATCH has been required in passenger vehicles since model year 2003 and on child restraints manufactured beginning in 2002. In most vehicles, two rear seating positions must have lower anchors, and three must have a tether anchor.

If a vehicle or seating position is not equipped with LATCH, you'll need to use the vehicle seat belts to secure the child restraint. Many vehicles have some seating positions with top tether anchors but not lower anchors.

Check for a secure installation by pushing and pulling the restraint where the seat belt or LATCH webbing passes through. The child restraint should not move more than 1 inch side-to-side or back-and-forth.

Finally, it's a good idea to take your vehicle to a child safety seat inspection station to have a certified technician look at it to make sure it's been installed correctly.

Most booster seats don't attach to the vehicle seat, but people may route the seat belt incorrectly or make other mistakes. Child safety seat inspectors can make sure boosters are being used correctly and can evaluate them for proper fit.

LATCH ratings

When it comes to making child restraint installations easier, LATCH has had mixed results. Research showing problems with LATCH ease of use prompted IIHS to begin rating LATCH hardware in vehicles in 2015. LATCH ratings for individual models are provided within our vehicle ratings. The ratings also show which seating positions in a given vehicle are equipped with LATCH hardware.

A common problem with LATCH ease of use is the depth of the lower anchors. In many vehicles, they are buried deep within the seats, so parents have to dig around in the cushions to find them. In some vehicles, there isn't enough room to maneuver around the lower anchors, and some anchors require excessive force to attach the lower connectors.

Tether anchors may be hard to see or access, causing parents to forgo using the tether or to attach it to something other than the tether anchor (Cicchino & Jermakian, 2015; Jermakian et al., 2014). In some cases, there is other hardware that can be easily mistaken for the tether anchor if the anchor isn't labeled clearly.

Many vehicles lack lower anchors in the center of the second row, even though that is the safest place for children to travel. Some minivans and SUVs don't have any lower anchors in the third row (Klinich et al., 2013).

LATCH installation

If you're struggling to use LATCH, first check the vehicle and child restraint owners' manuals for directions. If you still have problems, try securing your child restraint with a seat belt (plus the top tether in the case of a forward-facing restraint).

When shopping for a new vehicle, take along your child restraint to see how it fits. Pay attention to the location of lower anchors and top tether anchors and consider where you would install a child restraint. Don't forget to plan for times when you might carpool and need to use multiple child restraints.

Buckling your child

Rear-facing seats: The harness should be routed through the slots that are at or below your child's shoulders. The harness should be snug, and the locking chest clip should be at chest/armpit level.

Forward-facing seats: The harness should be routed through the slots that are at or above your child's shoulders. The harness needs to be snug, and the locking chest clip needs to be at the chest/armpit level.

Rear-facing child seat
Rear-facing: harness below shoulders and chest clip at chest/armpit level
Forward-facing child seat
Forward-facing: harness above shoulders and clip at chest/armpit level

Booster seats

The purpose of a booster seat is to improve the fit of a seat belt designed for adults so that it is properly positioned to protect a child in a crash. However, not all boosters provide good belt fit.

The lap belt should fit low across the upper thighs, not across the child's soft abdomen. The shoulder belt should cross snugly over the center of the shoulder.

Good lap belt fit
Good lap belt fit:
outline = arm rest removed to show belt position
Poor lap belt fit
Poor lap belt fit:
outline = arm rest removed to show belt position
Good shoulder belt fit
Good shoulder belt fit
Poor shoulder belt fit
Poor shoulder belt fit
Poor shoulder belt fit
Poor shoulder belt fit

IIHS evaluates boosters sold in the United States to see whether they provide good lap and shoulder belt fit for most children in most vehicles.

Supervise kids in and around cars

Before backing out of your driveway or parking spot, make sure you have full view of any nearby children. It is a good idea to roll down windows to help hear them, too. Young kids are most at risk of being killed in backover crashes because it is hard to spot them when they are close to the vehicle. This is especially true if you drive a high-riding pickup or SUV.

On the road, make sure kids don't remove their seat belts or unhook their child seat harness. Make a rule that the vehicle doesn't move unless everyone is buckled up and sitting upright.

Heatstroke is a serious risk. A child can quickly die in a closed car, even in cool weather. The temperature inside your car can rise nearly 20 degrees Fahrenheit within the first 10 minutes, NHTSA says. Although many cases of heatstroke involve a parent or caregiver who forgets a child in the back seat, often children get into unlocked vehicles themselves. Check the back seat every time you park your car and keep doors locked so children can't climb into cars to play. Visit safercar.gov/heatstroke for more information.