Car Seat Safety
Installing a car seat can seem like a complicated task, but parents and caregivers are often pleasantly surprised at how easy it is once they know where to find the information they need.
Car Seats and Booster Seats: What you need to know
For information on car seat clinics, check the External Resources section of this page.
Car Seat Tips
Here are some tips to help you install a car seat and transport children safely.
- Reading both your vehicle manual and car seat instructions is essential for knowing how to install and use your car seat
- Your car seat should have a label indicating it meets Canadian Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (CMVSS) — look for a circular label with a maple leaf
- Using a car seat that has a CMVSS label is required by law in Ontario. All new car seats sold in Canada have this label
- It is easiest to install seats with two people, one person kneeling or pushing down on the car seat, while the second person tightens the LATCH (UAS/ISOFIX) or seat belt
- After you have installed the seat, try to pull it towards the front of the vehicle and side to side where it is belted. It should not move more than 2.5 cm (1 inch)
- Make sure a rear-facing seat is reclined at approximately a 45 degree angle
- For a forward-facing car seat, make sure the top tether strap is used and also has less than 2.5 cm (1 inch) movement
- Make sure the car seat harness straps are snug; you should only be able to fit one finger between the straps and your child's collar bone. The top of the chest clip should be at armpit level
- Transport Canada recommends children under 13 sit in the back seat, especially if there is a front passenger air bag.
Infant Car Seats
Infant car seats are rear-facing only car seats, designed to be used from birth to the maximum height or weight limit of the car seat model you choose. Check your car seat instructions and the labels on the car seat for the height and weight ranges of your particular car seat.
Infants sit facing the back of the vehicle because they do not have the bone and muscle strength in their back and neck to withstand a forward facing collision. In a rear-facing position, the car seat itself absorbs the impact of a collision.
Never place a rear-facing car seat in a front seat where there is an active air bag. If you do not have back seats, you can use the front passenger seat provided the air bag is turned off. Consult your vehicle manual to see if the air bag can be turned off.
Convertible Car Seats
Convertible car seats are designed to be used both rear and forward-facing. Most babies will outgrow their infant car seat within their first year and will need to use a rear-facing convertible car seat.
Babies must be rear-facing until they meet (at minimum) all three requirements:
- A minimum weight of 10 kg (22 lbs.)
- At least 1 year old
- Walking unassisted
Many convertible car seats now have higher weight and height limits for the rear-facing stage. Even if your baby meets all three criteria above, as long as your child is still below the weight and height limits of your current car seat, the rear-facing position is still safer.
Some models of convertible car seats are a 3-in-1 style, which means the car seat can be used as a rear-facing seat, forward-facing seat and then booster seat. Follow your car seat instructions and the labels on the car seat.
Combination Car Seats
A combination car seat is a forward-facing only car seat which converts to a high-back booster seat.
It is used as a forward-facing car seat with a 5-point harness and a tether strap for children under 18 kg (40 lbs.). Later it can be converted to a booster seat, with the vehicle's lap/shoulder seat belt securing your child.
Combination seats vary greatly with their maximum weight and height limits, so it is important to carefully read the label on the seats (or refer to the car seat manual), when selecting the best seat for your child.
If you are purchasing a combination car seat because your child has outgrown the height limits of a convertible car seat, but they are less than 18 kg (40 lbs.), make sure the combination car seat is designed for the harnessing to be used beyond 101 cm (40 inches).
Booster Seats and Seatbelts
Booster seats are required for children after they are a minimum weight of 18 kg (40 lbs.). A booster seat is designed to help position the vehicle seat belt properly across the child's chest and hips.
Children under 18 kg (40 lbs.) must use a forward-facing car seat. Many new convertible, 3-in-1 and combination car seats have weight limits of 30 kg (65 lbs.). Even if your child weighs 18 kg (40 lbs.) and provincial law says you can use a booster seat, your child is safer in the forward-facing seat as long as they are within the car seat’s weight and height limits.
Current models of booster seats available in Canada must be used with a lap/shoulder seat belt only. There are high-back and backless booster seats. Make sure your child is within the height limits of the seat to ensure they have proper head and neck protection.
Booster seats are required by law until a child is 145 cm (4’9”), 36 kg (80 lbs.) or 8 years old.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why does a baby need to be rear-facing?
A baby needs to be rear-facing because they do not have the muscle and bone strength in their neck and back to withstand a forward-facing collision. Babies’ heads are large and heavy compared to the rest of their body, and when the head moves forward suddenly during a collision it can cause damage to the spinal cord. In a rear-facing position, the force of the crash is absorbed into the shell of the car seat.
My baby's head falls forward in his seat when he sleeps. How can I prevent this?
For rear-facing car seats it is important that the seat is reclined at a 45 degree angle. However, many vehicle seats are sloped and cause the car seat to sit too upright when installed. Some infant carriers have bases with a built in level adjustment to compensate for this slope. For bases that do not have this feature and for rear-facing convertible seats, place a pool noodle (or tightly rolled up towel) underneath the base at the crease of the vehicle seat to help get a 45 degree recline.
Instead of a booster seat, why can't I use a seat belt adapter?
Using a booster seat that meets Canadian Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (CMVSS) is required by law for children from a minimum weight of 18 kg (40 lbs.), until they are 145 cm (4’9”), 36 kg (80 lbs.) or 8 years of age.
Seat belt adapters are not safe for anyone to use. They change the position of the seat belt to areas of the body that can be severely injured in a crash. They are also not regulated by Transport Canada. For more information about car seat and seat belt accessories, visit Transport Canada.
Which car seat is the safest?
All seats sold in Canada must have a label (the national safety mark which is a circular sticker with a maple leaf) which shows the car seat meets the Canadian Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (CMVSS). How much a car seat costs is not an indicator of safety; however, some features may make the car seat easier for you to install in your vehicle and harness your child in it. The safest seat is the one that is appropriate for your child’s weight, height and developmental stage, can be installed correctly, and that you can easily use properly each and every time.
When should I stop using my rear-facing car seat?
Your baby has outgrown their infant car seat when they reach of the maximum height or weight limit of the car seat model you own (see the car seat manual and/or car seat label). At that point the child is ready for a convertible car seat, installed in the rear-facing position.
Babies must be rear-facing until they meet three things: a minimum weight of 10 kg (22 lbs.), at least 1 year of age, and walking unassisted. Many convertible car seats now have higher weight and height limits for the rear-facing stage. Even if your baby meets all three criteria, as long as your child is within the weight and height limits of your current car seat, the rear-facing position is still safer.
What is a tether strap? Will I get a ticket if I do not use it?
A tether strap is attached to the back top portion of convertible, 3-in-1 and combination car seats. The tether strap limits how far forward the car seat will move in a crash or a sudden stop. All forward-facing car seats must be installed with the tether strap fastened to one of the designated tether anchor bolt locations in your vehicle. See your vehicle manual for the locations of these anchor bolts. By law police officers can issue a ticket if the tether strap is not used, or if it is not used correctly.
Where can I get a tether anchor bolt installed?
Since September of 1999, all new passenger vehicles have a factory-installed, user-ready anchor bolts, and as of September 2000, all new light trucks, minivans and sport utility vehicles have a specified number of anchor bolts already installed. Check the vehicle owner's manual for the location of the anchor bolts, as they vary from vehicle to vehicle. If you have an older model vehicle, all passenger vehicles (excluding convertibles, minivans, sport utility vehicles and light pick-up trucks) manufactured after January 1989 have pre-drilled holes for tether anchor bolts. Your car dealership will be able to provide you with an anchor bolt appropriate for your vehicle and in some cases they will install it free of charge.
What are the most common mistakes people make when using their car seats?
Car seats checked across Canada indicate that the four most common mistakes made are:
- The child is not in the correct car seat
- The harness straps are not used properly (too loose or incorrect harness height)
- The LATCH (or seat belt) is not tight enough
- Tether straps are not used or used incorrectly (with forward-facing car seats)
When can my child ride in the front seat?
Transport Canada highly recommends that children under 13 years of age ride in the back seat of the vehicle, especially if there is a passenger side air bag.
Which location in the vehicle is safest for my car seat?
You should read your vehicle manual to find out if there are any locations in the vehicle where a car seat should not be installed. Also, if you are installing a car seat with the LATCH/UAS system, many vehicles do not have anchors for the middle location. Choose a location that allows a correct and tight installation, and also allows you to easily adjust and tighten the car seat harnessing on your child.
My vehicle has a side air bag, what do I do?
To date, there haven't been any significant concerns raised for babies or children secured properly in correctly installed car seats or booster seats. Transport Canada's How to Protect Children in Vehicles with Side Air Bags fact sheet has additional information regarding side air bags. If your child’s car seat is next to a door, clear the area between the child seat and the door of all objects – toys, blankets, and even pillows could harm your child if the side air bag inflates. It is also a good idea to read your vehicle manual to find out if there are any precautions you need to take when installing a car seat or seating your child beside side air bags.
Why are rear-facing car seats not tethered?
Rear-facing car seats are secured only with a LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) strap or seat belt because they are designed to rock towards the point of impact to absorb a collision’s force into the car seat shell. Please note, a few car seat models require or have an option tethering in a rear-facing position. The vehicle tether anchor locations that meet Canadian crash-testing standards are for forward-facing car seats. If your car seat manual advises you to tether rear-facing, especially to an area of the vehicle other than the designated tether anchor locations, be advised that Transport Canada has not crash tested rear-facing car seats with tether straps and the safety for this installation is unknown. For more information contact Transport Canada at 1-800-333-0371.
My car seat is five years old. Should I still use it, or how do I dispose of it?
Each car seat manufacturer has a specific expiry date for their models, ranging from five to eight years from the date of manufacture, based on their own research and crash-tests. New car seats often have the expiry date printed or moulded onto the shell of the car seat. Otherwise, locate the label on the car seat that shows the model number and date of manufacture and contact the car seat manufacturer to determine if your seat is still safe to use. To safely dispose of your car seat, cut off all harnessing, remove all padding and place the shell and car seat parts in separate garbage bags/containers.
I've seen many car seat accessories that will keep my child warm (instead of a snowsuit), or make them look more snug and comfortable in their car seat. Are they safe to use?
Often referred to as car seat bunting bags, depending on the design these are considered a safety risk when added to an infant car seat. The additional padding underneath a baby can compress with the force of a collision and create slack in the harnessing, potentially causing injury to your child. Infant car seat covers which do not come between the harnessing and your baby or the shell of the car seat are a safer option. Alternatively, secure your baby in their car seat harnessing first, and then place a blanket over them. Transport Canada further explains what the concerns are for the various car seat products that are not regulated under CMVSS standards.
I'm pregnant and am not sure where to place the lap/shoulder belt.
There is no reason for pregnant women not to wear a seatbelt. The best way to protect an unborn child is to protect the mother. Pregnant women should always wear a lap/shoulder belt, sitting as upright as possible. The lap belt portion should be placed low across the hips and over the upper thighs. It must lie snugly over the pelvis, never over the abdomen. The shoulder portion should be adjusted for a snug fit and lie between the breasts.
My child has figured out how to unbuckle the chest clip of his car seat. What can I do?
First, check to make sure that the harness straps are tightened enough on your child. You should only be able to put one finger between the collar bone and the shoulder harness. Next, make sure that the chest clip is at the armpit level. Finally, make sure that you have buckled the chest clip according to the manufacturer's instructions. If your child continues to find a way to unbuckle the chest clip, please call the car seat manufacturer for suggestions.
What else do I need to know about children and car seats?
Beyond the safe installation and harnessing of children in car seats, two situations that could potentially harm your child are leaving them unattended in vehicles and placing car seats on elevated surfaces.
It is never advisable to leave children unattended in vehicles, especially during the summer months. Parents may think that they can safely leave a child in a vehicle for a quick errand, yet delays of only a few minutes can be dangerous. When the outside temperature is 34°C, even with a window slightly open, the temperature inside a car can reach 52°C in just 20 minutes and approximately 60°C in 40 minutes (National Safe Kids Campaign, 2001). Extreme heat affects infants and small children rapidly, overwhelming their body's ability to regulate temperature. When left in a hot vehicle, a young child's core body temperature can increase three to five times faster than that of an adult, with the risk of permanent injury or death.
Another area of concern is placing car seats on elevated surfaces such as tables, washing machines, dryers and shopping carts. Children who fall from such heights can suffer skull, neck and spine fractures, with the additional weight of the car seat adding to the impact of the fall.
Car seats are effective in reducing the risk of injury and death when used properly in vehicles. It is not recommended to use infant carriers beyond their function as a car seat. They should not be used as an alternate place to sleep while at home.
Is my child ready for just a seat belt?
By law, a child must be in a booster seat until they meet one these requirements:
- A standing height of 145 cm (4'9")
- A minimum weight of 36 kg (80 lbs.)
- Eight years of age
Some other indications that your child is ready for a seatbelt:
- Knees should bend comfortably over the edge of the vehicle seat
- The shoulder belt should go over the shoulder and across the middle of your child's chest. It should not touch the neck or face, nor should it be tucked under the arm or behind the back
- The lap belt should fit low over the hip bones, under your child's belly area
- Have your child sit up straight in the back seat and measure them from the tailbone to the top of the head, the sitting height should be at least 74 cm (29")