These dangerous car seat mistakes can happen to any parent

by Rebecca Bahret
Jun 23, 2016 at 4:11 p.m. ET

Arguably one of the most important things you can do for the safety of your child passenger is use the right car seat, the right way, every time. But car seats can be tricky, and parents don’t always know the best way to keep their kids safely secured. According to one study, as much as three out of four car seats are installed incorrectly.

SheKnows asked Heathyr Kemp, a child passenger safety technician with Car Seats for the Littles, to see what the most common car seat mistakes were, why they can be dangerous and how to fix them.

1 /12: Forward-facing too soon

1/12 :Forward-facing too soon

Why it’s bad: Broken legs — cast it. Broken neck — casket. “A toddler's body is still developing. Their vertebrae are connected via cartilage rather than ossified bone. Those connections make them more vulnerable than older children and adults, and rear-facing offers the protection those connections need to prevent serious injury,” Kemp cautions. Even if your child has to fold or cross their legs while rear-facing, if the seat limits allow it, rear-facing is the safest way for your child to travel. It’s far easier to fix a broken leg than a broken neck.

How to fix it:  “Rear-face to the limits of your convertible seat, and shop wisely for a seat that will allow your child to rear-face as long as possible while those connections mature. You don't need a pricey seat to rear-face longer either. There are budget-friendly options as low as $49 that can accommodate even larger-than-average kids to age 2 and beyond.”

2 /12: Moving to a booster seat too soon

2/12 :Moving to a booster seat too soon

Why it’s bad: Kemp says, “Placing a child in a belt-positioning booster is giving them freedom, and with freedom comes responsibility.” Even if your child meets the height, weight and age minimums for using a booster seat, they might not be mature enough to stay in the proper position at all times.

How to fix it: Keeping your child in a harnessed seat “until they are mature enough to remain seated properly, even on long rides and when sleeping, is necessary for their safety. For most kids, this happens later, around 5 or 6. Like with rear-facing, it's best to max out the limits on your forward-facing harness seat before moving on to the next stage.”

3 /12: Buying a used car seat

3/12 :Buying a used car seat

Why it’s bad: You have no way of knowing if the seat has been cared for according to manufacturer’s specifications and has all required parts — meaning you have no way of knowing if it’s safe.

How to fix it: Unless you know the prior owner of a used seat extremely well and would put your kid’s life on their word, buy new. The seat could have been in an accident, the straps and harness could have been washed in a washing machine, it could be missing integral parts, it could have been checked as baggage on an airplane — you just have no way of knowing the history of the seat.

4 /12: Ignoring expiration dates

4/12 :Ignoring expiration dates

Why it’s bad: “Car seats [and car seat bases] expire for a variety of reasons. Material life span, regulation changes and continued research and development all factor into expirations. Using an expired seat is illegal in most states and puts your child at risk in a crash. An expired seat no longer has the confidence of its manufacturer; it shouldn't have yours either,” Kemp warns.

How to fix it: Be aware of the expiration date of any car seat or car seat base before use, and refuse to use any that are expired. If there is no expiration date, the date of manufacture can help you figure it out. Most car seats expire six years after date of manufacture.

5 /12: Using LATCH incorrectly

5/12 :Using LATCH incorrectly

Why it’s bad: The LATCH system can make car seat installation easy, but it has its limitations. Many parents use both the LATCH system and the seat belt together, thinking more belts = more safety. This is actually false.

“The majority of seats on the market are designed to be installed with either lower anchors or the vehicle's seat belt. While using both may seem like a good idea, it may have a negative impact on the seat's performance in a crash,” says Kemp. Unless specifically specified by the manufacturer, the seat hasn’t been tested with both restraint systems in use. If both are in use during a crash, stress may be placed on the seat in ways not tested or designed for, potentially causing the seat to fail.

"Also, the LATCH system has a maximum weight limit that varies, and that weight is determined by adding the weight of your seat to the weight of your child. The max weight for a Honda Odyssey may not be the same as the max weight limit for a Nissan Sentra, and if you are over that weight and using the lower anchors, they could fail during a crash, releasing your child’s seat."

How to fix it: “Always follow the manual for your seat, and if you feel you aren't getting a safe install with one method, try the other.” Be sure to check both your car seat manual and your vehicle manual to see what the maximum weight limit for a specific LATCH system combination is, and follow it. When in doubt, schedule an appointment with a CPST to have your installation checked.

6 /12: Strap placement too high or low

6/12 :Strap placement too high or low

Why it’s bad: If the straps are in the wrong position or not secured tightly enough, they won’t be able stop your child’s forward momentum if a crash occurs. This can cause injury — the very thing car seats are designed to prevent.

How to fix it: If your child is rear-facing, the straps need to be in the first position below their shoulders. If your child is forward-facing, the straps need to be in the first position above their shoulders. Loosen and retighten the straps every time the seat is used, always performing a “pinch-test” to see if the straps are tight enough.

7 /12: Ignoring the top tether

7/12 :Ignoring the top tether

Why it’s bad: The top tether holds a forward-facing car seat against the vehicle's back seat, reducing the car seat's forward and side movement during a crash. “This key part of installation is often missed by caregivers and reduces head excursion about 6 inches," says Kemp, "which can protect against spinal and facial injuries.”

How to fix it: If your child is in a forward-facing seat, use your top tether! Consult your vehicle manual for location, and if you can’t get a good, tight installation as directed in your car seat manual, contact a CPST for assistance.

8 /12: Improper chest clip placement

8/12 :Improper chest clip placement

Why it’s bad: “The chest clip is the harness' sidekick, ensuring the harness remains properly positioned until a crash begins, allowing the harness to restrain the child effectively,” Kemp says. If the chest clip is placed too low or not used at all, your child could potentially be ejected should a crash occur. If it is too high, your child could sustain neck injuries.

How to fix it: Always, always, always use the chest clip, and check for proper placement. “Your child's chest clip should be centered on their sternum. For most kids, armpit level is a good guide. Consult your manual for more information on seat-specific placement.”

9 /12: Letting kids wear a thick coat

9/12 :Letting kids wear a thick coat

Why it’s bad: The extra bulk of coats and jackets can interfere with proper harness fit. This can result in a harness that may seem tight enough but is actually too loose. During a crash, a loose harness will result in injury to your child and possible ejection from the car seat.

How to fix it: There are many ways to keep your child warm in the car during winter. For younger children still in infant-only seats, a “shower cap”-style cover works well. As your child ages, you can simply drape a blanket over them or put their jacket on backward once they are buckled into their seat. There are even car seat jackets on the market, specifically designed to allow safe car seat usage while wearing.

10 /12: Using seat accessories

10/12 :Using seat accessories

Why it’s bad: Simply put, the seat wasn’t tested with these items in place. Kemp warns: “Aftermarket and unregulated items like harness pads, bundle sacks and headrests alter the way the seat fits the child and the way the seat performs in a crash.”

How to fix it: “Generally speaking, you don't want to or need to add anything to a seat that didn't come with it in the box,” says Kemp. Don’t ever attach anything to the seat or harness unless your car seat manual specifically states you can. With few exceptions, nothing should be between your child restraint device and the seat of the car, and nothing should be between your child restraint device and your child. “If you feel your child needs something to fit the seat correctly or comfortably, contact the manufacturer to see what safe options they may have for you.”

11 /12: Not checking the laws

11/12 :Not checking the laws

Why it's bad: Obviously no one really wants to get a traffic ticket, least of all in front of their children. But this is an easy mistake to make -- because unlike most traffic laws, car seat safety laws get relatively frequent updates. And they always seem to happen just before road trip season.  

How to fix it: Check the Governor's Highway Safety Association list for the latest on laws from state to state