Motor vehicle injuries are the leading cause of death for children in the U.S., underscoring the importance of correctly installing a car seat and safely strapping in the child.

Most drivers with children in the vehicle believe their car or booster seat was installed correctly (73 percent), but almost half (45 percent) of the installations are flawed in some way, according to the 2015 National Child Restraint Use Special Study.

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 your car seat in your car.


Car-Seat Installation

A Loose car seat is one of the common Car-Seat Installation Mistakes Do: Secure car-seat installation
  • Don't: Loose installation, defined as having more than 1 inch of movement either forward and back and/or side-to-side when force is applied at the belt path.
  • Do: Regardless of whether you’re using LATCH anchors or the vehicle seat belt, the installation should have less than 1 inch of movement both 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 vehicle 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: Incorrect recline angle for rear-facing car seats.

  • Do: Be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions for setting the recline on your rear-facing seat. An overly upright seat 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 of forward-facing belt path for rear-facing orientation or rear-facing belt path for forward-facing orientation.

  • Do: Consult your car-seat manual and the seat’s labels to ensure you are using the correct belt path. Confusing the paths could mean the seat is not secure or may not respond 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: Not using a top tether for forward-facing installation.

  • Do: For all forward-facing installations, always attach the top tether whether the seat is installed using the lower anchors or the seat belts. The top tether significantly reduces a seat’s forward motion, which can reduce injury to the child, especially head injury. Car-seat misuse research conducted by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute also suggests that to some degree, 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: Loose harness allows too much movement.  

  • Do: Harness should be 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: Wrong rear-facing harness height.
  • 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: Wrong forward-facing harness height.
  • 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: Chest clip positioned too high or too low.

  • Do: The chest clip should be at armpit level. The chest clip is intended to keep the harness in proper position prior to 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 of non-approved 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, do not place any 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 for booster installations was the lap belt placed high on the belly or ribcage, rather than low across the hips and upper thighs. If you have a booster kid, visit our buying guide for more information on how to properly secure your child in the booster and whether your child is ready for the vehicle seat belt alone.


Correction: The percentages cited in the second paragraph of this article have been corrected, marking a slight change to: Most drivers with children in the vehicle believe their car or booster seat was installed correctly (73 percent), but almost half (45 percent) of the installations are flawed in some way.