Changing Child Safety Seat Guidelines: What Parents Need to Know


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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - The new year is bringing new guidelines for the installation of child safety seats. The recommendations come from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and deal with the LATCH system included in most newer vehicles.

LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. The system - essentially a metal bar in the crevice of the vehicle seat and a tether above - is intended to help parents install car seats correctly. However, NHTSA now says LATCH carries a weight limit.

Mike James is the state coordinator for Alabama's Child Passenger Safety program. He says LATCH worked well, but "now, some vehicles have a weight limit for what the weight limit of the child is. Sometimes there's a weight limit for the car seat and the child together and sometimes the car seat has a weight limit. Trying to figure all that out... it's just a muddy mess," James said.

The problem is the weight limit for the LATCH system depends on: the child, the make/model vehicle and the make/model car seat. There's no simple table advising parents when to use their car's LATCH system and when to go the old-fashioned route of securing the car seat with a seat belt through the base.

Parents are advised to check their vehicle's manual as well as the car seat manual to determine which method is safest. When in doubt, James says using a seat belt to secure the car seat is safe. Just make sure that - as with the LATCH system - there is an inch or less of slack in the belt.

One thing you can't do is use both the LATCH system and a seat belt. That's because James says car seats are only designed to withstand the impact of a single crash. If both belts are used, it will be impossible to make them equally tight. In the event of a wreck, the car seat will come up against the tightest belt first (an initial impact) and then, the looser belt (a second impact).

Parents should also know the NHTSA recommendations are guidelines, not law. To view Alabama's current car seat laws, click here. There are slight variations regarding car seat laws in Tennessee. More information may be found on that state's website.

For other helpful resources, visit Alabama's Child Passenger Safety website. This site also provides information on where to have a free car seat inspection done. James says such inspections are important because statistics show 93% of Alabama parents have installed their car seats incorrectly.

"There have been way, way, too many that were almost right," he added.

Finally, he advises parents interested in learning more to check out the guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics. In many cases, these guidelines are more stringent than state law. For instance, the AAP recommends children remain rear-facing until at least two years of age. Both Alabama and Tennessee only require children remain in a rear-facing seat until age 1 or 20 pounds, whichever comes first.

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