If you’re a California parent of a child less than 2 years of age, you need to know about a change to the car seat law that went into effect at the beginning of the year.
As of Jan. 1, 2017, the California Vehicle Code requires that “children under 2 years of age must ride in a rear-facing car seat unless the child weighs 40 or more pounds OR is 40 or more inches tall.”
What the law means for you
Is your child under the age of 2? Check. Is your child under 40 pounds or 40 inches? Check. Then you must place them in a car seat facing the rear of the vehicle. It’s no longer an option for parents to take this as a suggestion and turn the child around when you want.
While you may hate the fact that you can’t see your child’s face, or cringe at seeing their legs up against the back of the seat, rear-facing seats are best for small children because they provide extra cradling that reduces stress on a young neck and spinal cord. You can upgrade to a front-facing seat after the child weighs at least 40 pounds or is at least 40 inches tall (for most children, this is well after 2 years old). Whether front-facing or rear-facing, choose a seat that has been rated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and use it with confidence: all NHTSA-approved child seats comply with strict federal safety standards and have been rigorously tested for crash performance.
California law continues to require that all children under the age of 8 be secured in a car seat or booster in the back seat. After they’re 8 or older, they can use the car’s seat belt as long they’re tall enough (at least 4’9”) for it to fit properly; otherwise, they have to continue to ride in the car seat or booster.
Why it’s a good thing
If you are involved in a crash with a child riding in a rear-facing seat, instead of their head being forced forward, the child’s back, neck and head will be supported by the car seat.
Supporting a child’s body in a crash is especially important since children under the age of 2 have spines that are not yet fully developed and are more vulnerable to serious injury than an adult.
If you are pulled over, and your child’s car seat is not compliant with the law, you can be fined more than $500 and get a point on your driving record. If you need help learning how to install a car seat, call your local California Highway Patrol office and ask if they can assist you. Many CHP locations offer programs on car seat safety and installation, and they’d rather educate parents than write them tickets.
Car seat safety tips
- When placing your child in a car seat, make sure the harness straps are snug. Using your thumb and pointer finger, you shouldn’t be able to pinch any extra strap at your child’s collarbone level.
- Take off any bulky clothes such as jackets or blankets, so there is no padding between the harness straps and the child where movement could occur in the event of a crash. You can place a blanket over the child once they are strapped into the harness.
- Make sure the retainer clips are at armpit level to hold the harness straps properly in place.
- When rear-facing, the harness straps of the car seat should be located at or below your child’s shoulders.
- While the law states that rear-facing is for children up to the age of 2, this is only a minimum requirement. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children ride rear-facing to the highest weight or height allowed by the car seat manufacturer. Usually, this is until about the age of 4.
Of course, you need to make sure everyone in the car is buckled up, children and adults alike. It’s the single most important safety step to take before every trip, and it’s the law. Happy travels!
Karli Tedeschi is the Injury Prevention Program Coordinator, and the Safe Kids Sonoma County Coordinator, at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.