Car seat installation
The day before I gave birth to my daughter - who came nine days early, by the way - I said to my husband, "I think we'd better figure out how to install the car seat." It was a hot Saturday afternoon in February, and as I stood over him reading the instruction manual aloud, he struggled with the just-long-enough seatbelt and wrestled the capsule into the backseat. An hour later, as we both stood there, dazed and grumpy, he turned to me and said, "Do you think we can get the baby in and out without unbuckling the seatbelt?"
We did finally master installing the capsule, which was good since my daughter rode in it for almost six months (she's just a little thing). By the time we were ready to upgrade to a "regular" car seat, we had a pretty good idea of the features we wanted - and "easy to install" was at the top of the list.
Luckily, our car has the LATCH system, which means there are little bars between the seat and back to which we can anchor a special seatbelt that came with the car seat, simplifying installation (and avoiding wrestling with those tricky car seatbelts). The first time I installed the seat, it took five minutes. As I clicked the LATCH belt into place, I remember thinking, "Surely it can't be this easy?"
Fast-forward nine months, and I'm standing in my driveway with Bonnie Smith, certified Safe2Go technician and founder of the Kiwi website www.childrestraintsafety.com. Bonnie is inspecting my car seat, which I had smugly thought was installed absolutely correctly - after all, I followed the directions in the manual, made sure the seat was rear-facing and pulled the LATCH belt as tight as I could get it. "So, what's wrong with it?" I asked Bonnie nonchalantly, thinking to myself, "She is going to be so impressed!"
Not so fast. Bonnie looks my seat over, then casually reaches out and pushes it so that it moves from side to side. "It's not supposed to move more than an inch on either side, and your seat is moving at least three inches," she tells me with a kind smile. My ego is about to be crushed, and I'm about to learn more than I ever thought I'd need to know about car seat installation and safety.
It turns out that reading the car seat's manual is only part of the story. Car seats are anything but "one size fits all" - the car seat you use depends on your child's age, weight and height, the make and model of your car, and where in your car you're going to install it. Bonnie not only had a read through my car seat's manual, she also read the section on car seat installation in my car's manual - and then she admitted that the night before our meeting, she'd actually gone online and looked up supplementary information, visiting message boards, finding photos of car seats like mine that were properly installed in cars like mine, and even watching videos on how to install my particular car seat just to make sure she got it exactly right.
As Bonnie unbuckled my car seat, she pointed out that while the installation wasn't perfect, it could have been worse. But there was still lots of room for improvement.
The one thing I did do correctly was to insist that my daughter's car seat be installed in the rear-facing position. I'd read heaps of recent research showing that the longer your child's car seat is rear-facing, the safer they are. So Bonnie was happy to re-install the seat rear-facing - it just had to go in a different spot in the backseat. I'd had it in the centre of the backseat, which I'd read was the safest place for the car seat to be in the event of a side-impact crash. "That's true," Bonnie agreed. "But not all car seats can be fitted correctly in the centre seating position. And the way your LATCH anchor points are situated in the car means that the car seat shouldn't go in the middle, unless you're using the vehicle's seatbelt to secure it."
And the problem with using the vehicle's seatbelt, she explained, is that seatbelts are made for adults, not car seats. And while LATCH/ISOFIX has not been proven to be more or less safe then the seatbelt, seatbelt installations are often proven more difficult and are prone to twisting of the belt, buckle crunching and so forth. So, if the car and the car seat have LATCH or a similar installation system (like ISOFIX), it might be better to use that instead.
Bonnie also added, "Although the rear middle seat (or the middle of the second row for people movers) is the ideal position for a car seat to be in for side impacts, the best position for your car seat to be in is the one where you can fit it correctly and snugly. It's no use having the car seat in the middle if you can't achieve a proper install."
The LATCH anchor points in my car were only in the side passenger seats, and with the car seat in the middle, they were too far apart for me to be able to get the belt tight enough to keep the seat from moving less than the permitted one inch. Once Bonnie moved the car seat to the rear passenger side and clicked the LATCH belt into place, I could hardly move it at all!
"To check that the seat isn't moving too far from side to side, use your weakest hand - only one hand - and push on the seat at the belt path," Bonnie instructed. So I reached out my left hand and pushed - and the seat barely moved, not even if I gave it a good shove. Apparently a lot of people use both hands and grasp the back of the seat to see if it moves, which is incorrect - this isn't the place where you need to check movement. Check it at the belt path - this is the point on your car seat that you have threaded the belt through.
My car seat conforms to a US safety standard so it doesn't tether rear-facing, but Bonnie also explained, "No US standard car seat sold in New Zealand tethers rear-facing, only forward-facing. European seats most often don't tether at all, and Australian seats, by law, must always tether both rear-facing and forward-facing."
If your seat comes with a tether strap, it's much safer to use it in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions. Another important thing Bonnie pointed out was to not use luggage clips as anchor bolts unless the car's manual, or the car's manufacturer, specifically state that they has been approved and tested for this purpose. "It would be a better idea to consult professionals and whenever you're unsure, just have another bolt professionally fitted, as there is the possibility that the luggage clip may fail to adequately restrain the seat in an accident."
After this, it was time to check that the five-point harness was positioned properly for my daughter's height. "It is important to read your instruction manual to know what harness slots you should use, as not all seats are the same," Bonnie explained.
Thankfully I had used the right harness slots in relation to my daughter's shoulder level, and when she's buckled into the car seat, there isn't more than a finger's width of slack between the harness and her collarbone. So no matter how adventurous my daughter tries to be, there's no way she can escape from the harness!
Finally finished, I closed the car door humbly, feeling grateful that I hadn't been in an accident in the nine months since I'd been driving my baby around in a car seat that wasn't well-installed - and feeling a great deal of appreciation that someone had been able to spot my mistakes and show me how to correct them. The AA says that 80% of car seats are installed incorrectly, and I didn't believe it until Bonnie looked at my own car seat's installation with professional eyes.
For more information about how to install your child's car seat correctly and safely, visit www.childrestraintsafety.com.