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Are you prepared for the new car seat law?

Curtis McDonald, MD

An updated, more rigorous car seat law will go into effect Jan. 1, 2020. Washington law will now echo recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Find out how your kids will be affected. Below, Dr. Curtis McDonald, Vancouver Clinic pediatrician and father of four, answers questions about keeping kids safe and legal on the road.

Q: What do the AAP and new law say?
Dr. McDonald: Infants and toddlers should ride in a rear-facing safety seat as long as possible—until they meet the manufacturer’s height or weight limit. For most children, this means they will ride rear-facing until they are at least 2 years old. Once forward-facing, children should ride in a safety seat with a harness until they meet their seat’s maximum height or weight limit. Many seats will accommodate children up to 65 pounds.

Once children outgrow those limits, they should ride in a belt-positioning booster seat. Children should weigh at least 40 pounds and be between 5 and 8 years old before making the switch. Only when the vehicle’s lap and shoulder belt fit properly may kids ride without a booster. For most children, this will occur when they reach 4 feet 9 inches tall, or between 8 and 12 years old. All children under 13 should ride in the back seat for optimal protection.

Q: Why should toddlers face backward for so long?
Dr. McDonald: Infants’ and toddlers’ heads are disproportionately large and heavy. During an accident, their heads are thrown forward, often resulting in spine and head injuries. In a rear-facing safety seat, the head, neck, and spine are all supported by the hard shell of the safety seat. This allows the car seat to absorb most of the force of the collision while protecting the most vulnerable parts of the body. While some parents worry about their children’s legs being scrunched against the back of the seat, it’s important to remember that limb injuries can generally be repaired. Head and neck injuries are much more likely to cause permanent damage or disability.

Q: What if my child feels like a baby in a booster seat?
Dr. McDonald: Car crashes remain one of the leading causes of death for children in the U.S. Booster seats (and car seats) significantly reduce the likelihood of injury or death. It’s okay for kids to feel uncool in a booster, but it’s not okay for them to stop using it. Your child’s safety is the priority.

Q: Which safety seat is best?
Dr. McDonald: All car seats rated by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration meet federal safety standards and strict crash performance standards. Get help choosing the proper type of seat for your child at www.nhtsa.gov/equipment/car-seats-and-booster-seats. To keep kids safe and comply with the updated law, you may need to move children back into a harness or booster, or return them to a rear-facing position.

Q: How do I know if my safety seat is properly installed?
Dr. McDonald: The above website provides tips on proper installation, and most hospitals and fire stations provide free car seat checks. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Your child’s safety is worth the extra effort!