Did you know you can install almost every infant car seat carrier by itself, without using the base? This type of installation, where you strap in the car seat carrier using the seat belt, is perfect for travel within the US and Canada, in rental cars, rideshares like Uber and Lyft, taxis, grandma’s car, your friend’s car, etc.
When you buy a rear-facing only car seat (infant seat) in the US you (almost always) get two parts: a carrier and a base. Bases are designed as convenience features, not safety features, for parents who own a car. You install the base just once, leave it installed, and simply click the carrier in or out of it every time you go in or out of the car with the baby.
But bases are NOT convenient when you want to jump in an Uber, hail a taxi, go in a friend’s car, fly to California on vacation, etc. In these situations you’ll want to travel with just the carrier. Nearly every carrier currently sold in the US can be used as a car seat without the base.
To use the carrier as a standalone car seat, you’ll use the vehicle’s seat belt to secure the car seat to the vehicle.
There are two ways the seat belt can wrap around the carrier in these situations: 1. the European belt path and 2. the American belt path. Both the American & European belt paths start by routing the vehicle’s lap belt over the baby’s lap area (the purple/white dashed belt). Just like you wear a shoulder belt to provide added protection, so too the European belt path wraps the shoulder belt around the back of the carrier for added protection.
The European belt path is superior to the American belt path because it allows for a more secure installation and decreases the crash forces on a baby’s head and neck, explained in more detail below. Don’t let the name fool you–even though it’s called a European belt path, it’s found on quite a few car seats sold in the US and is something you’ll want to use whether you are traveling in the US or abroad.
Seeing is believing. The video below shows the same seat installed first with an American belt path and then with a European belt path.
A tighter installation: In our experience, the European belt path will yield a secure installation in about 95% of vehicles anywhere in the world… while the American belt path will yield a secure installation in only about 20% of cars in the US.
Decreased head and neck forces: Not only is the European belt path much more likely to yield a safe, secure installation than the American belt path, it also decreases the forces on the baby’s head and neck during a crash as it eliminates any downward motion of the carrier during a crash. Thinking this sounds like what a load leg does on a base? You’re exactly right! The European belt path does for the carrier installation what the load leg does for a base installation. They both lead to decreased head and neck forces for your baby.
Safe international travel outside the US/Canada: The American method is not appropriate for travel outside the US/Canada because it relies on the seat belt’s own locking mechanism to stay tight over the infant carrier. Seat belts outside the US/Canada do not have this locking mechanism and are therefore incompatible with carriers requiring the American method (unless you use a metal locking clip on the seat belt which requires a 2-person, multi-step installation with a misuse rate of near 100%.)
In depth: The American method works inside the US/Canada because in these two countries, all seat belts made since 1996 have a locking mode designed specifically for children’s car seats that enables the vehicle’s seat belt to stay tight at all times, even during normal driving. This contrasts with the normal locking mode adults use which locks the belt only when you slam on the brakes or get in a crash. Vehicle seat belts outside the US/Canada typically do not have the special car seat locking mode. Without such a locking feature in the vehicle’s seat belt, to properly install the car seat one needs either a car seat with a built-in seat belt locking device not typically found on infant carriers, OR to use a metal locking clip on the seat belt (the 2-person multi-step installation which has a misuse rate of near 100%) OR a seat belt routing path that uses up most of the vehicle’s seat belt – i.e. a European belt path – and thereby allows a snug installation until the vehicle’s seat belt locks during a crash. Therefore, the European belt path is able to yield a secure installation without needing to add extra parts onto the seat belt – like a metal locking clip – in the US and abroad.
The following US seats currently on the market feature a European belt path on the carrier. The Chicco Fit2 has the highest capacity of any of the seats listed here as it can accommodate the tallest child (and all kids are too tall long before too heavy for an infant seat); the Fit2 will fit 75% of kids until at least their 2nd birthday. Click “view larger version” in the bottom right of the table for an easier to view format.
If you watch the American belt path video and think to yourself “hey, that seat didn’t seem tight when they checked,” well you’re right – it wasn’t tight enough. In the majority of vehicles – including the one we had access to for filming this video – the American path doesn’t yield a tight installation.