All states regulate what kind of restraint systems drivers must use to secure child passengers. Drivers who don't follow the rules may face stiff penalties. So, it's important to make sure children riding in your car have the kind of seat that the law requires.
CHECK WITH YOUR PEDIATRICIAN AND LEARN ABOUT THE LAW IN YOUR STATE
This article covers some of the child-safety-seat basics. However, before deciding what kind of restraint system to use for your child, always consult with your pediatrician and learn about the laws in your state.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends different types of safety restraints depending on a child's size. State law requirements usually resemble the NHTSA recommendations.
Child restraints normally fall into one of four basic categories: Rear-facing car seats, forward-facing car seats, booster seats, and seat belts.
A child's first car seat typically should be rear-facing. Manufacturers always specify the exact size limits for a seat. But generally, rear-facing car seats are for infants and smaller children. Depending on the make of the seat and size of your child, a rear-facing seat might be appropriate from birth until about two or three years old.
Forward-facing car seats come into play once your child exceeds the maximum size restrictions for a rear-facing seat. Most children reach the appropriate size for a forward-facing car seat when they're between two and four years old.
Booster seats are the next step up for when your child outgrows a normal forward-facing car seat. Generally, booster seats work with a car's factory-installed seat belts. The purpose of the booster is to position the child so that the seat belts fit appropriately relative to the child's body size. A booster seat might be appropriate for a child up until about age 12, depending on the child's size.
It's appropriate for a child to use a normal seat belt only once it fits properly. Before switching from a booster to a seat belt, it's always best to check with your pediatrician to make sure it's safe to do so.
With all child car seats, booster seats, and lap belts, the NHTSA recommends that children be seated in the vehicle's rear seats. According to the NHTSA, regardless of what restraint system is used, the back seats are generally safer for children.
CAR SEAT RECALL INFORMATION
Occasionally, car seats get recalled because of safety issues. The NHTSA posts information for recalls that have already been issued and you can register to receive an email alert if a recall for your seat is every issued in the future.
The rules are different in every state. But state safety seat laws typically require different types of restraints depending on the age, weight, and height of your child. And because child safety is the primary concern of these laws, the requirements are usually reflective of the NHTSA recommendations.
Many states—consistent with NHTSA suggestions—require parents to place car seats in the rear seats of the vehicle. However, there's often an exception for vehicles (like pickup trucks and two-seater sedans) that don't have back seats.
State websites often have up-to-date information on child safety seat laws. Local enforcement agencies are another good source to find out what your state regulations require. Many law enforcement agencies will even inspect your car seat to ensure that it's installed correctly.
In most states, a first car seat violation will run you anywhere from $25 to $500. Many states increase the fine for a second or subsequent offense. And some states count child-safety-seat tickets as moving violations—so a conviction can add points to a motorist's driving record.
Violators might also have to complete a course on car-seat safety or verify with local law enforcement they have obtained and installed the correct type of car seat. (In some states, a judge can waive the fine for parents who acquire an appropriate safety seat within a certain period of time after being cited.)