Is your kid's car seat ready for a crash? Most aren't

Despite parents' best intentions, a majority of children's car seats are installed incorrectly, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Are parents and caregivers just incompetent? Or are we set up to fail by a bewildering array of lower anchors, upper tethers, chest clips, incomprehensible instructions and mind-boggling marketing?

“If you give a test and 95 percent of the people taking it fail, you have to assume there's something wrong with the test,” pediatrician Benjamin Hoffman said. “Car seats are hard to use and there's a lot of factors that feed into that.”

National Child Passenger Safety Week just wrapped up and one daunting take-away is 59 percent of car seats are improperly installed, the NHTSA reports.

Hoffman, chairman of the Council on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention for the Elk Grove Village-based American Academy of Pediatrics, puts that number higher. His research shows 95 percent of seats with newborns, 80 percent of rear-facing and forward-facing seats, and 40 percent of boosters are being misused.

Parents who've tortured themselves connecting a child seat to obscure metal anchors buried in the cushions or are flummoxed by the lack of middle-seat anchors should know compatibility with child seats isn't a priority for automakers, explained Hoffman. “There's not tremendous market demand.”

Sometimes the problem isn't installing the seat — it's picking the right one.

“Every kid is sized differently and every car seat is sized differently, so it can be difficult,” AAA spokeswoman Beth Mosher said.

Help is out there, however.

The NHTSA offers a tool to find the right seat by typing in your child's age, weight and height at The agency also rates seats by how easy they are to position at

Once you're ready to buy, don't be overwhelmed by “the wall of car seats,” said Hoffman. He advises parents to visit stores for an initial assessment before buying and to pick a retailer who is flexible about letting you check if the seat works in your vehicle.

Price isn't everything, he noted. “The least expensive car seat meets the same federal standards as more expensive car seats.”

If the seat you purchased is fighting back or you want to be sure it's perfect, there's a legion of certified car seat technicians who can help. Many local police departments and the AAA provide free inspections and instructions; to find someone local, go to

The need is out there as evidenced by a number of families who showed up at a car seat inspection event offered by the Palatine Police Department Friday.

Palatine mom Dana Mijalski watched as technician Neil Baltz demonstrated how to install seats for Ruby, 3, and 9-month-old Max. “I won't even attempt it,” Mijalski said. “I don't know why they make it that hard.”

The good news is “there has been a tremendous movement to increase the ease of use and make seats that meet the needs of kids and families,” said Hoffman, a child seat safety instructor and medical director for the safety center at Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland, Oregon. “We need to push the industry to (develop) systems that are foolproof.”

Hoffman doesn't endorse products, but noted Britax's ClickTight system provides a secure fit and is easy to use; he also said that some manufacturers are making seats that automatically ensure harnesses are in the right position and are snug. The snag is that some of these products are more expensive.

“It's really important to continue to hammer on the industry that they need to help us protect everybody,” Hoffman said.

You should know

Car crashes are the leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 13 and under — and many of those could be prevented by using car seats and belts properly, the U.S. Department of Transportation reports. Federal guidelines advise: Children from birth to age 2 and older should use rear-facing car seats; ages 2 through 7 can use forward-facing car seats; ages 4 through 12 can use boosters; and ages 8 and up can use regular car seats and seat belts. It's important to check your individual car seat for weight and height limitations.

Precious cargo

Here are some typical errors that car seat inspectors find:

• Moving babies and toddlers out of rear-facing seats to front-facing seats, which are considered less safe, too early. Similarly, more than one-quarter of children ages 4 to 7 are being shifted from boosters to regular car seats before they're ready.

• Failing to properly secure hooks, belts and tethers that keep the child seat locked down.

• Forgetting to make sure harnesses fit snugly or to check that the chest clip is at armpit level.

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  Palatine Police Department certified child safety seat inspector Neal Baltz gives advice to mom Dana Mijalski Friday. Bob Chwedyk/
  It's a tight squeeze for Palatine Police Officers Kellie Poliquin and Jeff Schlee, certified child seat inspectors, as they install seats for mom Pamela Walters of Inverness Friday. Bob Chwedyk/
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