Using a Car Seat After a Crash - Should Baby's Car Seat Be Replaced?

Crash Test Dummies
Should this car seat be replaced after the crash? NHTSA's 5 steps and the car seat owner's manual will guide the decision. Flickr/Benjamin Allen

After a crash, is it safe to continue using baby's car seat, or does the car seat need to be replaced? There's not a simple answer to cover every crash scenario. The overall answer is, "maybe." An older recommendation was to always replace car seats after every crash, no matter how minor. That standard has changed, though. If your child's car seat was involved in a crash, here's how to find out if it should be replaced.

NHTSA Car Seat Re-Use Recommendations

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) offers recommendations on when to replace car seats after car accidents, so you'll need to go through NHTSA's checklist and make sure that your vehicle and car seats meet all five criteria in order to be safely re-used. The five criteria are:

  • the vehicle could be driven away from the crash site (not towed)
  • the vehicle door closest to the car seat was not damaged
  • no one in the vehicle was injured
  • the air bags did not deploy
  • there is no visible damage to the car seat

If your vehicle and car seats don't meet all five criteria, the car seats should be replaced. It does not matter whether a child was riding in the car seat at the time of the crash. Even an empty car seat that was buckled into the vehicle must withstand crash forces at the belt path.

If you have more than one car seat in your vehicle, one may need to be replaced after a crash, while the other does not.

For example, if the door closest to one car seat was damaged, but the door closest to the other car seat was not, then only one car seat would need to be replaced as long as the other criteria were all met.

Manufacturer Instructions for Using a Car Seat After a Crash

Some car seat manufacturers state in the user manual that their car seats should be replaced after any crash, no matter how minor.

The manufacturers instructions take precedence over other agency suggestions, so take a look at the manual before deciding to use a car seat after a crash.

Graco, for example, states that their car seats must be replaced after any crash. It doesn't matter if the crash was minor. In order to properly use a car seat, you must follow manufacturer instructions.

Britax, another car seat manufacturer, tells customers to use the five NHTSA criteria shown above. Many other car seat manufacturers use this method to determine whether or not you should use a car seat after a crash. Read that manual to find out what is required by the manufacturer of your baby's car seat.

Other Safety Resources After a Crash

You may hear that a visual inspection is sufficient in deciding whether or not to re-use a car seat after a crash. Many clients at car seat inspection events have mentioned that they thought they could take a car seat to the fire station or police department to have it certified as safe after a crash.

However, crash damage is not always visible to the naked eye. There are some scans and x-rays that can find hidden damage, but the cost of these tests is usually greater than the cost of the most expensive new car seat. Without this type of test, no one can inspect your car seat and certify it as safe after a crash.

Talk to your insurance company about reimbursement for car seats. Since safe car seats are required in all states, insurance companies should pay the entire cost of a new car seat. Some companies may try to pro-rate the cost of a car seat based on the age of the damaged seat. Pro-rated compensation is unacceptable, though, since it is not safe to purchase an older, used car seat for your baby.