common car seat mistakes

Here's a scary statistic for parents: car crashes are the leading killer of children 1 to 12 years old in the United States. Here's another one: some 70 percent of car seats are installed improperly. Never want to get in a car with your child again? Don't worry ... as confusing as those car seat manuals can be, we've got the answers to your biggest questions about safety seats.

The experts have weighed in on parents' biggest mistakes in the backseat -- and how to fix them!

1. Only reading the car seat manual. The car seat manual should be read, and adhered to, but did you know it's not the only one? "The car has its own rules," explains Lorrie Walker, training manager and technical advisor for the Safe Kids Buckle Up Program. Walker suggests pulling out the directions for your seat as well as read up on what your vehicle manufacturer has to say about car seat installation to make sure you're following both sets of guidelines.

This also applies when moving your seat from one family car to another. Not every vehicle is the same, she warns, and you may have to make adjustments to installation for safety's sake when you make the switch.

2. Assuming every seat belt fit is safe. If not in a car seat with a harness, kids should be wearing seat belts, but they need to actually fit kids the "right" way in order to protect them.

If your child is using a seat belt -- with a booster seat or without -- the lap portion of the belt must sit low on the hips rather than across the stomach or somewhere on the legs. The upper portion should come across the chest and rest on the bony shoulder, Walker says, not on the neck and not be placed under the armpit.

3. Turning a rear-facing child around too soon. It may seem like turning your kids around so you can see their faces in the rear-view mirror is safer (not to mention easier on you), but there are good reasons for holding off ... the longer, the better.

"It comes down to simple, anatomical development of a child," says Allana Pinkerton, global safety advocate for Diono. "The vertebrae does not fuse together until a child is between 4 and 6 years old. Frontal, crash impacts are strong enough to damage the spine on a young child."

Scary stuff, and that's not all.

"If your child sits close to the seat in front of them, their head and legs can hit the seat hard enough to cause a brain injury or broken legs and feet," Pinkerton warns. "Rear facing is safer in all types of collisions."

So when can kids finally make the turn?

No sooner than 2 years old, for sure, but check your car seat manual (ahem -- number 1 above). Some seats can accommodate a larger toddler in rear-facing mode.

car seat mistakes4. Not tightening the straps enough on a seat. Yes, it's inconvenient having to loosen and tighten those suckers every time you get your kiddo in and out of the car. But it's one hassle you need to deal with if you don't want your child flying out of the seat in a crash. So how do you know what's "tight enough"?

Pinkerton says parents should do what's known as the "pinch test."

"Once you have snug down the harness, take your index finger and thumb and try lightly grabbing the harness up at the collar bone," she says. "You don’t have to dig down into the harness; just see if you get a fold in the webbing. Do not check for a snug fit at the chest clip. This will give you a false sense the harness is too loose and you might over-tighten the harness, making your child very uncomfortable, leaving red marks on their skin."

5. Thinking state laws are the safest. Of course, you need to follow state laws. But often they're just not enough! "The law of physics has overtaken the law of each state," says Walker.

What she means by that is this: your state may say your child is big enough to "graduate" from a safety seat, but it really comes down to what's safest for the child. If your kiddo's seat belt doesn't fit the way Walker describes in number 2, they still need that safety seat -- no matter what your state says.

6. Not adjusting the car seat as kids age. Many safety seats cover an age range, but as your child grows within the seat, you need to make some changes! One of the biggies? Adjusting the shoulder straps for your forward-facing child.

Shoulder straps should always begin above your child's shoulder -- never below -- says Walker. Most seats have different slots for the straps, so parents can move them up as a child gets taller. If your child's shoulders are above the highest slot, it's time for a new seat!

7. Not moving the chest clip. That little doohickey isn't just there to look good. "It helps position the harness so that they stay on the child’s shoulders," Pinkerton explains. After hooking the clip, slide it up so it's level with your child's armpits for a proper fit.

8. Picking a car seat by age. Take two 2-year-olds and put 'em side by side. What are the chances they'll be the exact same size? Slim to none? So why would you think a car seat manufacturer -- who has never met your kid -- would know how big they are at any particular age?

The age guidelines are a general guideline, Walker says. The more important numbers to look at are height and weight. So if your child is 8 and still weighs just 40 pounds (for example), you shouldn't put them in a seat that's for 8-year-olds and kids who weigh at least 50 pounds.

For help gauging whether your child is in the right seat for their size, the government has a handy tool!

9. Assuming hand-me-down car seats are safe. Hey, every mom loves a freebie, but sometimes you're just asking for trouble. Pinkerton suggests assessing the following before accepting a used car seat:

  • Has it been involved in a crash?
  • Is it on the recall list?
  • Has it been stored in a climate-controlled area?
  • Did the child who rode in it have lice and has it been thoroughly cleaned?

If you've got a used seat, and you want to see if it's safe, check with the manufacturer for recalls. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also has a hotline for parents to call to check on recalled seats.

10. Using LATCH and a seat belt to secure a car seat. If one is good, two are better, right? Wrong! According to Walker, car seat manufacturers only test seats with one method of securing a seat in place. They want to make sure the seat can withstand a crash with just one because not every car has both in place.

Picking both methods, Walker warns, could "compromise" the safety of a seat.

"Pick the one that works best for you!" she tells parents.

Have you made any of the mistakes on the list?