When it comes to properly installing a child safety seat in a car, many parents grapple with what can seem like an unsolvable and complex puzzle. And with the safety of your child at stake, it’s vital to make all the right moves.
Have no fear, because SF SAFE is here—and we can help!
SF SAFE’s Certified Child Passenger Safety Technicians (CPSTs) can visit a home and offer no-cost education and assistance to parents/caregivers on how to choose the right seat for their child, how to properly install car seats in a vehicle and how to correctly harness their child.
We recently caught up with SF SAFE’s own Adam Cuadra, who is CPST-certified through Safe Kids Worldwide and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and who helps parents install or check approximately 50 child safety seats per year in San Francisco.
In his experience at SF SAFE, Cuadra asserts that about “nine out of ten car seats are installed incorrectly” in the family cars he inspects throughout the city.
Typically, parents give SF SAFE a call to inspect their child safety seat after they’ve already purchased and installed it. Cuadra can make home visits if a family’s vehicle can be parked on a flat surface in a safe area. Hills are out of the question because he needs to make sure the angle of recline is correct for rear-facing car seats for babies.
“We give them education and directions on what they did right, what they did wrong,” said Cuadra about his work with parents, later adding that “we don’t enforce, we educate.”
So what are some of the most common errors he identifies in car seats that have been installed by San Francisco parents? According to Cuadra, the most common error is the tightness of the car seat, i.e., the belts are not secured tight enough. “We use the 1 inch rule,” he said, meaning there shouldn’t be a gap greater than 1 inch with the belts.
Cuadra said that another common error he often sees with child safety seat installations is that “parents use two methods of securing the car seat—the lower anchor system and the seat belt system—and that’s a big no-no since the car seats aren’t crash tested in that way. They’re only crash tested with one specific locking mechanism in mind.” So, parents should only be using one type of anchoring system—not both.
A third error Cuadra comes across in inspecting previously installed child safety seats is an improper reclining angle, especially with a rear-facing car seat. Per Cuadra, “it has to be at a specific angle. Often times it’s too high…so the child can face whiplash” if there’s an accident.
Cuadra emphasizes that his work not only involves checking the proper installation of child safety seats, but also booster seats and rear–facing seats for newborns. “It’s up until they’re using their seat belts,” he said of the scope of his work.
For the occasional instances when parents are still shopping for a child safety seat, Cuadra’s advises them to be mindful of the proper selection for the age, height and weight of the child. The right selection “depends on all these different factors,” he said. Check out our article that touches on child safety seat laws .
As part of his work with parents, Cuadra inspects harnessing as well, which he says is “just as important as car seat installation,” adding that “with harnessing, you’re looking at that the child is secure enough in the car seat without posing any injury to the child as well as ensuring the harnessing is strapped accordingly and that the child isn’t moving around.” “The harness will really [help] protect the child” in an accident.
Summing up the importance of properly installed child safety seats, Cuadra said, “Ultimately it’s about protecting your child at all costs…Even low impact crashes can cause serious injury to a child if they’re not properly harnessed or installed correctly.”