Like most other animals in the kingdom, humans have an instinctive desire to protect their offspring from harm, so using child safety seats seems like a matter of common sense. But as many parents have discovered over the years, these seats are actually rather complicated. For one thing, there are a few different kinds of seats. For another, there are laws governing parents’ usage of child safety seats while driving, and these laws vary by state. And then there’s the fact that installing the confounded things can be a pain in the parental tuchus. You have better things to do than sort through the details, so we’ve broken down the various laws, seats and systems for you.
Types of Seats
The infant seat can only be installed in the rear-facing position, which ensures maximal whiplash protection for a young child. Children under the age of one should always ride in the rear-facing position. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends keeping your child facing rearward until the seat manufacturer’s weight limit—generally between 20 and 30 pounds for an infant seat—has been exceeded.
The convertible seat is a hybrid product that permits both rear-facing and front-facing installations. It’s typically bulkier than an infant seat, but its weight limit can stretch to about 50 pounds. This allows your child to face rearward for longer, and when that’s no longer feasible because of legroom issues, you can turn the seat around and use it as a front-facing seat as long as the weight limit hasn’t been reached.
The combination seat is front-facing only, so you’ll be buying one of the abovementioned seats first. The “combination” part signifies this seat’s dual purpose as a conventional child safety seat (meaning it has its own five-point harness) and a booster seat (“boosting” the child high enough to be restrained by a car’s seatbelt when the harness no longer fits). The weight limit of a combination seat is higher than that of a convertible seat, and by the time your child surpasses this limit, he or she might be tall enough to use a regular seatbelt without assistance...
…but if not, you’ll need to invest in yet another seat, a dedicated booster seat , which has the highest weight limit of all—up to 100 pounds, or sometimes even more.
Because safety-seat regulations are created by state legislatures, the legal details vary widely depending on where you live. We can, however, make a few general observations. If your child is three years old or under, a safety or booster seat is mandatory. If you live anywhere except Florida, it’s four or under, and most states put the minimum age for “adult” seatbelt use between five and seven years. Beyon...