As much as you may want to sometimes, hopefully you are aware that you can’t strap your child’s car seat to the roof rack or have them ride in the trunk. Did you know that there are locations inside your vehicle that could be just as dangerous for a car seat? Here are seven places never to install your child’s seat, and two places you should never leave your child's car seat in general.
Regardless of where it is installed, it is always best to have your seat checked by a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician. These services are usually free. Find a local tech by visiting cert.safekids.org.
1. In front of an active airbag
This is one of the most deadly places to install a child safety seat. A rear-facing car seat must NEVER be placed in front of an active airbag (placing a child seat next to a backseat side curtain airbag is fine). If the passenger airbag were to deploy, the force of it opening and hitting the back of the seat is nearly certain to kill the child riding in it. This video shows why.
Advanced airbag systems have sensors that detect the weight of an occupant and deactivate the airbag if the weight of the person sitting in it is below a certain number of pounds, but these sensors are not reliable enough to make a rear-facing seat safe in front of an airbag. Even in a forward-facing car seat or booster, a child under the age of 13 is unsafe riding in the front seat.
2. In a seating position without an adult seat belt
This probably goes without saying, but I will say it anyway. Unless specifically permitted in your vehicle owner’s manual, don’t put a child seat anywhere that does not have an adult seat belt. Even if you plan to install using LATCH and the LATCH anchors appear accessible, there’s a reason that the vehicle manufacturer didn’t put a seat belt there. Just put the child seat somewhere else.
3. In a rear- or side-facing vehicle seat
Some vehicles have a row of rear-facing seats, or “jump seats” that fold down and face sideways. Child restraints are not crash-tested in or designed for these types of seats, so it is not safe to install them there. This will probably be stated in the seat and/or car manual (see #4).
4. In a seating position not allowed by the vehicle owner’s manual
Before installing the seat, read through the section of your car manual that pertains to child restraints. If it says, for example, that the middle seat of the 3rd row of your van is not appropriate for a car seat, there’s a reason for that, even if it’s not obvious to you. They know what they’re talking about; don’t put the seat there.
5. For forward-facing harnessed seats: anywhere without a top tether anchor
If your child is over the age of 2 and riding in a forward-facing seat with a 5-point harness, the top tether strap must be attached to a tether anchor. Your vehicle owner’s manual will show you where to find the designated tether points. Every vehicle starting with model year 2002 must have at least 3 tether anchors. If a seating position does not have a tether anchor, you can’t put the forward-facing seat there. Children under the age of 2 must remain rear-facing. Most kids need to remain in a five-point harness until about age 6.
If your vehicle does not have tether anchors, contact a dealership. Most will retrofit at least one anchor, often free of charge.
6. Any place where you cannot securely install the seat
Not every car seat is suitable for every seating position in every vehicle. The safest place for a car seat, all else being equal, is the middle of the backseat, but that only applies if you can install the seat properly there. If you cannot get the seat safely installed in accordance with its instruction manual, don’t put it there.
7. On top of a shopping cart
Even if it seems to be secure, shopping with the infant seat on top of the cart is never safe. It makes the cart top-heavy. Babies in seats can and have toppled off the top of the cart or had the whole cart tip over on them, leading to skull fractures and other severe injuries. Every infant car seat also states in the manual not to do this, and many shopping carts have warnings on them against it as well. It seems like everybody does this and therefore it must be safe, but it isn’t. Period.
8. On top of the car or trunk
We all know how it is: your hands are full, it might be muddy next to the car, and you need a place to set the infant seat down while you fish out your keys. Almost everybody has put a drink, bag, or some other item on the roof of their car at some point and then forgotten about it. I've definitely driven off at least once with a full cup of coffee still sitting on top of my car. It seems impossible that anyone could ever forget their baby on the roof, but this has happened. Parents are human; we get distracted, and we forget things. The best way to avoid it is simply never, ever, EVER to place the car seat on top of the car. You can't forget it up there if it was never there to begin with.
9. Outdoors or in the garage/basement/attic
Clearly, this last one pertains mainly to the storage of your seat. Car seats are designed to withstand a pretty wide range of temperature fluctuations, but they aren’t intended to be stored outside.
Even in your usual storage areas, such as the garage, humidity can lead to mold growth and rusting of the metal parts of the seat. Bugs and rodents could also damage it. If possible, store your seat indoors, in a closet or spare room. At minimum, keep at least the fabric components and harness straps (if removable) inside and place the shell in a large plastic tote for storage.