Children being secured in car seats

A 6-week-old infant, still strapped into his child car seat, survived ejection out of an SUV during a rollover crash last week on a California road, providing a chilling reminder of the importance of proper car-seat installation. 

The SUV crashed near an exit in Turlock, Calif., and flipped over multiple times. The infant was thrown from the vehicle through a broken window and found alongside the road, still in his car seat and relatively unharmed. 

While ejection of restrained occupants is rare, this case emphasizes the importance of proper car-seat installation and harnessing. Motor vehicle injuries are the leading cause of death for children in the U.S. When installed the right way, car seats can prevent death and mitigate injuries.

More on Car Seats

Most drivers who transport children think their car or booster seat is installed correctly (73 percent), but nearly half (45 percent) of the installations are flawed in some way, according to the 2015 National Child Restraint Use Special Study, the latest government research available. All the more reason to find a certified child passenger safety technician or car-seat check station in your area to make sure yours is correct (NHTSA|Safe Kids). 

Consumer Reports routinely tests child seats in three areas: crash protection, ease of use, and ease of installation in various vehicles. 

To help drivers properly secure their children, we’ve identified some common mistakes, including those noted in the study.

Use the slider over the images below to find out whether you too may be inadvertently making mistakes, and learn how to correct them.

First Steps: Car Seat to Vehicle Installation

Slide right and left to see what not to do and what you should be doing when installing a car seat.

Car-Seat Installation

A Loose car seat is one of the common Car-Seat Installation Mistakes Do: Secure car-seat installation
  • Don't allow more than 1 inch of movement either forward and back and side to side when force is applied at the belt path.
  • Do: Regardless of whether you’re using LATCH anchors or the vehicle's seat belt, the installation should have less than 1 inch of movement forward and back and side to side when pulled at the belt path. If you’re installing with the vehicle seat belt, be sure to consult your owner’s manual to learn how to properly lock the seat belt.

Recline Angle for Rear-Facing Seats

Don't: Incorrectly set recline angle Do: Follow the seat's manual & recline indicators
  • Don't set the recline angle for rear-facing car seats incorrectly.

  • Do: Be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions for setting the recline on your rear-facing seat. A seat that's too upright can cause an infant’s head to fall forward and obstruct his or her breathing. Reclining too far can reduce the seat’s ability to protect the child in a crash.

Seat Orientation and Belt Path

Don't: Rear-facing belt path for forward-facing orientation Do: Forward-facing belt path when forward-facing seat
  • Don't use a forward-facing belt path for a rear-facing orientation or a rear-facing belt path for a forward-facing orientation.

  • Do: Consult your car-seat manual and the seat’s labels to make sure you're using the correct belt path. Confusing the paths could mean the seat isn't secure or may not perform as it should during a crash.

Top Tether for Forward-Facing Installations

Don't: No top tether use for forward-facing seats Do: Always securely attach the top tether for all forward-facing installs
  • Don't forget to use a top tether for forward-facing installation.

  • Do: For a forward-facing installation, always attach the top tether whether the seat is installed using the lower anchors or a seat belt. The top tether significantly reduces a seat’s forward motion, which can reduce injury to a child, especially a head injury. Research on car-seat misuse by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute also suggests that to some degree, a top tether use may help mitigate the effects of other misuses, such as loose harnessing or loose installation. Top tethers not only enhance safety but are also easy to use.

Next Steps: Securing Child in Car Seat

Slide right and left to see what not to do and what you should be doing when securing your child in a car seat.

Harness Tightening

Don't: Can pinch webbing between fingers at the shoulders Do: No webbing between fingers at the shoulders
  • Don't leave a loose harness that allows too much movement.  

  • Do: Make the harness snug enough so that you can’t pinch any webbing between your fingers at your child’s shoulders. A loose harness can cause your child to move outside the protection of the child seat during a crash.

Rear-Facing Harness Height

Don't: Harness above shoulders when rear-facing Do: Harness at or below shoulders when rear-facing
Photos: Car seats in these photos have been modified to better demonstrate proper harness position.
  • Don't position the harness at the wrong height for a rear-facing installation.
  • Do: For rear-facing seats, the harness should be positioned at or slightly below the shoulders. Correct harness positioning optimizes the seat's ability to protect in a crash.

Forward-Facing Harness Height

Don't: Harness below shoulders when forward-facing Do: Harness at shoulders when forward-facing
Photos: Car seats in these photos have been modified to better demonstrate proper harness position.
  • Don't position the harness at the wrong height for a forward-facing installation.
  • Do: For forward-facing seats, the harness should be adjusted to fit at or slightly above the shoulders. Correct harness positioning optimizes the seat's ability to protect in a crash.

Chest-Clip Position

Don't: Chest clip low on belly Do: Chest clip at armpit level
  • Don't position the chest clip too high or too low.

  • Do: Position chest clip at armpit level. It's intended to keep the harness in proper position in the event of a crash.

Covers and Cushions

Don't: Use covers and cushions from a different brand Do: Use approved covers and cushions from car seat's manufacturer
  • Don't use nonapproved covers and cushions.

  • Do: Use only covers and cushions that have been approved by the car-seat manufacturer for use with that seat. These items have been crash-tested with your seat to meet compliance standards. As a rule, don't place additional padding between the seat and your child or between your child and the harness straps.

The study also found that the most common misuse of booster installations was placing the lap belt high on the belly or rib cage rather than low across the hips and upper thighs. If you have a booster seat, check our car seat buying guide for more information on how to properly secure your child in it and how to decide whether your child is ready for a vehicle's seat belt alone.