If you’ve been around long enough, you might remember a time before all the rules and regulations around child car seats really came into play. Hand up if you ever used a phone book as a booster seat!✋

You might be hard pressed to say what’s more archaic in this case: the car seat laws of old or people actually owning and using a phone book!

All kidding aside, what we’re trying to say is that the strict safety regulations that exist today, which were put in place to protect our children each time we step behind the wheel, weren’t much of a consideration until the late 1960s and early 1970s. It’s not that surprising if you’ve seen the “car seats” released around these times. They were essentially “what we’d call a bouncy chair,” says Trudy Slaght, Clek’s expert Child Passenger Safety Advocate, instructor and trainer. Even earlier models were little more than simple devices to prop a child up in the car, so parents could keep a better eye on them! 👀

Public Awareness Drove Rapid Change

By the late 70s, the public became increasingly aware of the high rates of injury and mortality for child passengers. This spurned a speedy development and implementation of laws and standards. Despite that, you might be shocked to learn that laws requiring the use of child safety seats weren’t adopted by all 50 states until 1986!

It wasn’t until the 1990s that the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) and other associations like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) expanded on these regulations and practices to better cover more facets of child passenger safety. These included guidelines that now seem like simple common sense, like the fact that safety restraint devices should be tailored to the age & size of a child - and that children should remain in the vehicle’s back seat.

Of course, regulations continue to evolve over time and slowly move towards what is truly considered best practice. Extended rear-facing, the use of a 5-point harness, crash testing requirements, and many more recommendations have been created or transformed along the way. All have had the same goal of keeping kids as safe as possible when along for the ride.

However, while it might seem counterintuitive, these laws don’t always represent the safest way for kiddo to travel in a vehicle. And therein lies what we’ve been leading to this whole time: the difference between car seat laws and best practice.

car seat law

Car Seat law vs Best Practice: What's the Difference?

“Best practice is the gold standard of protection (while following manufacturer instructions). It is the safest way to transport a child based on the child’s age, weight, height, and development levels,” says NHTSA. That’s also one of the first things Child Passenger Safety Technicians learn during their certification course.

Think about it this way: as recently as two years ago, the AAP recommended children remain rear-facing until 2. While many kiddos could conceivably safely ride forward-facing at that age, that doesn’t mean it’s the best recommendation possible. Safe and safer. Heck, many states and provinces still don’t dictate any rear-facing requirements (or anything about boosters, for that matter), just that a child of a certain age or size must use an appropriate car seat.

With how much regulations, laws, and recommendations vary from state to state and province to province, it can be especially confusing for parents who are looking to give their kiddos the safest ride possible. It’s not surprising to know that most parents aren’t taking a deep dive into their region’s car seat laws and simply follow the car seat manufacturer’s guidelines, in conjunction with their vehicle recommendations.

And with continued advancement in design philosophies and technology found in car seats, what seemed safe at one time is often eventually dispelled or improved upon. But while the law should always be followed when it comes to car seats, it should only be considered the minimum precaution.

At the end of the day, it comes down to education. As more and more parents continue to learn about, follow, and preach best practice, the more widely it will be adopted.

With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at some current best practices:

  • According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a child should sit rear-facing as long as possible, preferably until he or she reaches the limit of the convertible seat in rear-facing mode. Rear-facing protects the most fragile parts of a young child’s body: their head, neck, and backs. Positioning the car seat to face the back of the vehicle gives a child the best possible protection in a crash.
  • Once a child turns forward-facing, keep them harnessed until they reach the limit of their seat in forward-facing mode. Once outgrown, decide if the child is ready to move on to a booster seat. This can be determined by their age, height, weight, and most importantly, their developmental level. Are they mature enough to sit in a booster seat safely (i.e. leaving the seat belt in its proper position, not slouching or leaning, not trying to escape, etc.)? If the child is not ready for a booster seat, find a seat with higher forward-facing limits that will accommodate the child in harnessed mode longer.
  • Keep children in boosters until they can pass the 5-Step Test
  • Keep children in the back seat until at least age 13. Frontal airbags are designed for adults, not children

So, to boil it down as much as possible: don’t use a phone book… Unless it’s to find the number of a local CPST who can knowledgeably educate you on best practices and help you make the most informed decisions about your children’s safety inside the vehicle. Ride safe.

Ride right. Ride on.