Expiring Car Seats

By Pam Henderson

It may seem that car seats naturally expire. After a car seat’s first resident baby has a few spit-ups and super soggy diapers during drive time, or expresses the lunchtime green peas, the car seat starts to look and smell like something from a musty, abandoned basement. It’s hard to believe that someone so little could create such a mess. So, it seems only natural that parents would want to pitch the car seat when Baby #2 comes along.

Well-intentioned parents may be able to sanitize that old car seat until it once again looks sparkling new – and who wouldn’t want to salvage it? A car seat can be a pretty hefty investment. First-time parents are oftentimes meticulous about having the newest, latest and greatest gadgets and gizmos for their baby. Then, after parenting for a little while, they may start to think that a few germs will do a body good (aka boost the immunities).

Believe it or not, car seats expire. While it may seem like a marketing ploy for manufacturers, car seat expirations are intended to give children the most up-to-date protection when they are a passenger in a vehicle. Car seats are continuously undergoing rigorous testing so that our most precious cargo stays as safe as possible.

I grew up pretty recklessly when it came to passenger safety. In my 10th grade Drivers’ Ed class, the back seat students intentionally closed the door on their seat belts so the sparks would fly when the metal hit the pavement. In those days, seat belts didn’t really come into play until not wearing one became a ticket-able violation. Today, we’d never think of getting into a car with a worn or missing seat belt. When we know better, we can do better.

A car seat ages just like any other plastic object. Think of the outdoor play equipment that sits in the sun all day and is exposed to sweltering heat in the summer and frigid cold in the winter. Over time, it becomes brittle. A car seat may respond similarly with cracking or stress fractures, which may be hidden underneath the padding.

If you examine your car seat and see that it has no stress cracks and looks as good as new, you may be tempted to use it again for your next child or grandchild. Think again. Is it really worth the risk? You can’t know if your car seat would function properly in an accident until you’ve experienced the accident. At that moment, you certainly wouldn’t want to find out that it was outdated. It’s just not a risk worth taking.

The expiration date is typically listed somewhere on the car seat, maybe underneath or on a manufacturer’s tag. It may state something like, “Do not use this after —“ with the date listed. You can also check the owner’s manual or call the manufacturer. If there is not a date listed, the LaPorte County Health Department recommends that car seats expire 7 years from the date of manufacture. You may hear others say that their car seat has a longer expiration period, perhaps 10 years. Unless you have clear instructions from the manufacturer, the 7-year rule is the best bet, according to the experts.

The LaPorte County Health Department offers free car seat safety and installation checks at its  Michigan City office location. Appointments are recommended but not necessary. A National Certified Passenger Safety Technician can make sure your car seat is correctly installed, is the right fit for your child, and is in the best position in your car. Check out the Health Department’s website for more information.

On a related note, do not use second-hand or borrowed car seats. Again, there may be stress cracks from misuse, age or even from the trauma of an accident. Parts could be missing, too.

Be sure that when you throw your car seat out, that you destroy it in a way that it could not be picked up and re-used by someone else. Cut the harness, rip the fabric and break the shell.

Be sure to follow Indiana’s guidelines for properly restraining your child in a car. It’s not just the law – it could be life-saving. And, be sure to let your child see that you are buckled up too – no matter how short the distance you are driving.

These guidelines come from the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute:

Birth – 12 Months
Your child under age one should always ride in a rear-facing car seat.  There are different types of rear-facing car seats: Infant-only seats can only be used rear-facing. Convertible and 3-in-1 car seats typically have higher height and weight limits for the rear-facing position, allowing you to keep your child rear-facing for a longer period of time

1 – 3 Years
Your child should remain in a rear-facing car seat until he or she reaches the top height or weight limit allowed by your car seat’s manufacturer. Once your child outgrows the rear-facing car seat, your child is ready to travel in a forward-facing car seat with a harness.

4 – 7 Years
Keep your child in a forward-facing car seat with a harness until he or she reaches the top height or weight limit allowed by your car seat’s manufacturer. Once your child outgrows the forward-facing car seat with a harness, it’s time to travel in a booster seat, but still in the back seat.

8 – 16 Years
Keep your child in a booster seat until he or she is big enough to fit in a seat belt properly. For a seat belt to fit properly the lap belt must lie snugly across the upper thighs, not the stomach. The shoulder belt should lie snug across the shoulder and chest and not cross the neck or face. Remember: your child should still ride in the back seat because it’s safer there.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety administration, car crashes are a leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 13. Following guidelines for your child’s passenger restraints can help your child from becoming a statistic. More information is available at https://www.nhtsa.gov/equipment/car-seats-and-booster-seats#find-right-car-seat-age-size-recommendations and at the Indiana State Police’s website at http://www.in.gov/isp.