Where should I install my child’s car seat? Which spot is safest?
Posted in: Blog, Installation
Toddler rear-facing in center
The center of the back seat is statistically the safest place in the car.
Research from real crashes shows that the center is safest – particularly because you can’t take a direct impact in the center. One study of kids 0-3 years old found that kids sitting in the center are 43% safer than those sitting on the side. A study of all fatal crashes in the US between 2000 and 2003 found that the person sitting in the center of the back seat had a 13% increased chance of survival than those sitting in the back but on one of the side seats.
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Talk about mixed messages! LATCH was specifically designed for child safety seats, yet the safest place in the vehicle for the child safety seat usually doesn’t have LATCH! But…..you can still install your child’s car seat in the center even if there is no LATCH because you have a seat belt in the center seat and EVERY car seat in the US is allowed to be installed with a seat belt.
The center is often the most difficult spot of the car to get a tight installation – so if the car seat is loose in the center but tight on the side, leave it tight on the side. Finding a car seat with a narrow footprint (as the center seat is typically the narrowest of the 3 seats) and a built in locking device for the seat belt will greatly increase your chances of getting a tight installation in the center of your car.
Remember, there is almost always a tether anchor for the center seat, so if you are installing a child safety seat forward-facing, make sure to use both the vehicle safety belt AND the tether strap. More about using LATCH in the center.
Rigid LATCH is a significant safety feature as it not only reduces the misuse rate for car seat installation to nearly zero, it also holds the car seat more tightly to the vehicle in a crash which increases the protection the car seat can offer. Therefore, if you have a car seat with rigid LATCH we would recommend using this seat to its full potential and installing it in a position (usually one of the side seats) where you can use the rigid LATCH.
Since the center is the safest place in the vehicle, try to put the person who is the least protected in that position. For example, a rear-facing child (even a 4 pound preemie) is 5 times safer than a forward-facing child or adult, simply because the rear-facing child is rear-facing! So put the forward-facing person in the center seat to “even things out.”
Of course, there are times when this might not work. If you have a lap-only belt in the middle seat, things get complicated. A child in a booster seat or an adult should NOT ride with just a lap-only belt. If you have a lap-only belt, it will be safer for the child in a booster seat or the adult to sit on the side and use a lap-and-shoulder belt.
If putting an older child or an adult in the center, you’ll also want to make sure there is adequate head protection – which means that the vehicle’s seat back or head rest can come up to at least the top of the ears to decrease the chances of whiplash.
The most important thing is to use the child safety seat properly. If it won’t install securely in the center, place it on the side, or buy a different child safety seat that will fit in the center! There is no difference in the safety of the 2 sides – so if putting the seat on the side, choose whichever side you prefer (or where the car seat fits best).
A load leg is a significant safety feature as it significantly decreases the forces on the baby’s head and neck in a crash. You can read more about load legs here – and they are right now only found on infant seat bases in the U.S. (in Europe they appear on other types of car seats too). Just like your legs often don’t fit in the center of the back seat due to the hump in the floor, so too the load leg frequently doesn’t fit in the center seat either. When we’ve asked engineers who design car seats what they would do if they had a car seat with a load leg and could either install it in the center seat without using the load leg, or put it on the side and use the load leg – they’ve been unanimous in recommending that it go on the side to take advantage of the added protection the load leg offers.
As a parent, you have many things to worry about. And many parents worry about this. But as Car Seat Ladies, we are going to tell you NOT TO WORRY! If a child safety seat is used correctly, you don’t need to worry about anyone going through the windshield. A properly used child safety seat is belted tightly to the vehicle and the child is strapped in tightly to the harness. The one people who might go through the windshield are those who forgot to wear their safety belts or kids who were very loose in their harness straps.
Lap belts are very safe for securing a car seat where the child uses a 5-point harness. Kids in boosters and adults in seat belts need a shoulder belt to keep their head and chest well protected.
Nope! For those of you who may have heard not to put a rear-facing child safety seat in front of a fold-down armrest, here is how that myth got started. Years ago, one child safety seat manufacturer (Evenflo) slipped this sentence into the instruction manual for all of their rear-facing safety seats: “When this restraint is used rear-facing, DO NOT place it in a seating position with a fold-down armrest. During an impact, the movement of the armrest can cause serious injury or death to your infant.” Evenflo was never able to provide even one real-world example where a baby was hurt in a crash because of an armrest. None of the other child safety seat manufacturers ever even thought the arm rest was a problem. In fact, no one in the safety field is even aware of one injury to a rear-facing baby due to the arm rest. Eventually, Evenflo removed this statement from all of their seats and now allows any of their seats to be placed in front of a fold-down armrest. Remember, the study that found that kids are 43% safer in the center was from real-world crashes, with real babies riding rear-facing in front of fold-down armrests.
It depends on who will be riding there. Kids in car seats don’t rely on the vehicle’s head restraints for protection. However, big kids in backless boosters (and quite a few high back boosters that have non-rigid backs) and all adults do rely on the vehicle’s head restraints to protect them from whiplash injuries. A properly positioned vehicle head restraint should go up to at least the top of the ears – and ideally the top of the head.
No! You don’t need a new car. Kids and adults can ride very safely on the side. Just like in the center, the most important thing is to make sure the car seat is installed and used properly.
With that said, many vehicles that only have 2 seats in back tend to be convertibles & coupes which due to their small size can often pose significant challenges in installing a car seat properly. If you are trying to install a forward facing car seat, be aware that the tether strap is the most important part of every forward facing car seat but that many convertibles (vehicles) do not have tether anchors as the government exempted these vehicles from the requirement since there often wasn’t a place in the structure of the vehicle to put a tether anchor. In this case, the child should remain rear facing or not ride in this vehicle.