Most parents today understand the importance of securing their children with car seats, boosters or seat belts. Nearly 90 percent of children under age 13 were restrained while traveling in 2009, according to a survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). But the kids may not be as safe as adults think. Many children are moved to forward-facing seats or to adult lap belts before they should be.
A recent study by the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital found that 73 percent of parents switched their children from rear-facing car seats to forward-facing car seats before age 2. Thirty percent of parents turned their child's seat to face forward before their child reached age 1.
That's too early, according to safety experts. Children under 3 should remain in rear-facing car seats in the back seat for as long as possible, until they reach the manufacturer's recommended height and weight limits of the seat, according to NHTSA.
Once children do outgrow their rear-facing seats, usually around age 3, they can sit in forward-facing car seats with harnesses, but they should remain in the back seat. The weight limits on these seats usually range between 65 and 80 pounds, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The final step before kids move to an adult seat belt is a belt-positioning booster seat, which raises a child high enough so that the car's shoulder and lap belts fit properly.
No matter what size or style of car seat they choose, parents should anchor the seat according to the manufacturer's directions. Many cars today come equipped with the LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system, which makes the process easier
All states have laws that require parents to secure their children in car seats or boosters, although the requirements vary by state. Parents trying to comply with the laws may try to save money by using car seats picked up at yard sales or handed down from friends or relatives. However, older or used car seats may not meet the latest safety standards, may have been damaged in an accident or may have been recalled, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Parents should check NHTSA's car seat recall database (safercar.gov) or call the auto safety hotline at 888-DASH-2-DOT before they entrust their children to used car seats or boosters.
Free assistance is available to families who are unsure about whether the car seat they're using is the right model for their children or whether they've secured it correctly. NHTSA has set up a website -- seatcheck.org -- that makes it easier for parents to find a certified child seat inspector in their area. They also can call 888-SEAT-CHECK to get that information.
Using car seats may sometimes seem like a lot of effort, but they have made a significant difference in protecting children. Between 1975 and 2009, there's been a 54 percent reduction in the number of child passengers killed in automobile crashes, according to IIHS.