Car seat laws are regulated by each state, and car seat standards are regulated by the federal government. Safety belt laws vary by state, and so do car seat laws. Always check your own state’s laws when using car seats.
Many states specifically require parents to have their children in a properly-used car seat or booster seat. The instructions on the car seat are referred to as the “proper use clause” and by using the seat, you are acknowledging that you read those instructions.
Car seat installation can be tricky, which is why most fire and police stations will perform an inspection of the seat to ensure it is properly installed. To avoid airbag injury, car seats should be in the back seat; if a seat is installed improperly, injury or death may occur in the event of a car accident.
Car seats are made according to a child’s age and physical measurements. As children grow, their car seat needs change and parents are required to comply with state law through each stage of growth. It is important to note that many states have requirements that are joined by “and,” which means both requirements must be met.
Other requirements use “or,” which means one of the requirements must be met, and this is especially common in booster seats. Below are general guidelines for various types of car seats, though each state will have its own set of rules:
- Newborns and infants should be in rear-facing seats in the back seat of the vehicle. Rear-facing car seats are commonly required for children under one year of age and/or under 20 pounds;
- Some states require a child to stay in this stage until two years of age.
- Children of the ages 1 to 4 years and under 40 pounds should be in forward-facing seats placed in the back seat of the vehicle;
- Booster seats lift the child so as to safely fit into an adult seat belt; and
- Children up until the age of 8 and over 4’9” should be in a booster seat in the rear of the vehicle.
- Children may use seat belts or safety belts after growing past all stages. If possible, have the child continue to sit in the back seat as this is the safest area in the vehicle.
Your state laws may be different from the above. It is always a good idea to check your own laws, and visit a fire or police station for a safety inspection.
The penalties for failing to comply with car seat laws are also up to the state. Typically considered a traffic offense, fines can range anywhere from $10 to $500 and more for subsequent offenses. Some states also use the driver’s license point system to penalize noncompliance.
In some states, drivers may be pulled over if a police officer sees a car seat violation, known as a primary offense. In other states, a car seat violation is a secondary offense, which means the driver had to have been pulled over for something else such as speeding. If the police officer sees a car seat violation, citations for both offenses may follow.
If an individual who failed to use a car seat is being sued for damages stemming from a car accident, the plaintiff typically will not be able to use the car seat violation as leverage.
If you cannot afford a car seat, there are some options available. A Local Safe Kids Coalition, or the local fire and police department are resources that may have car seat donations, reduced-cost car seats, or they may be able to direct you to other local resources. Second-hand stores may also have car seats, but be sure to have the seat checked out by the fire or police department, and call the manufacturer to ensure the seat was not recalled.
Courts will not excuse breaking the law because of a parent’s inability to purchase a car seat. It is important to do whatever you can to avoid a child safety seat violation citation.
If you are dealing with a car seat violation issue, you should speak with a criminal lawyer as soon as possible. A lawyer will advise you on your next course of action, and will also build your case in the event of a lawsuit. Car seat violations are serious, and corrective measures should be taken immediately to prevent future harm to your child.