Car seats do a phenomenal job of protecting babies and toddlers during vehicle crashes. After a crash, though, is it safe to continue using baby's car seat, or does the car seat need to be replaced when an accident occurs?
There's not a simple answer to cover every car seat and crash scenario. The overall answer is, "maybe." An older recommendation was to always replace car seats after every crash, no matter how minor.
The standard for car seat replacement after an accident has changed, though. If your baby'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 baby car seats after car crashes, 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 for car seat replacement after an accident are:
- you were able to drive the vehicle away from the crash site. If the vehicle needed to be towed from the scene of the accident, the car seat should be replaced.
- the vehicle door closest to the car seat was not damaged. If your vehicle has a third row of seats and the car seat was installed there, the closest door is in the second row, or a back door (if your vehicle has one, some larger vehicles do).
- no one in the vehicle was injured in any way.
- none of the air bags in the vehicle deployed. This includes frontal air bags, side curtain air bags, seat belt air bags, seat side air bags, and knee bolster airbags.
- there is no visible damage to the car seat. There are no cracks, creases, stretched webbing, broken top tether stitching, stress marks, or broken pieces.
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. The force of the car seat moving forward and being held back by the seat belt or LATCH belt can cause damage that might keep the car seat from doing its job if you're in another crash.
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 instruction 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 whether or not to use a car seat after a crash.
Graco, for example, states that their car seats must be replaced after any crash.
A user manual for the Graco Snug Ride Classic Connect 32 infant car seat says, "Replace the infant restraint and base after a crash of any kind. An accident can cause damage to the infant restraint that you may not be able to see." 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.
Following the manufacturer's instructions is important not only for safety, but for warranty purposes. If the manufacturer says to replace the car seat after a crash, and it is not replaced, any further warranty related work may not be covered if it becomes necessary.
Misuse generally voids the manufacturer's warranty.
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.
In general, a car seat is meant to be a one-time use product. That means it's designed to protect your child through one crash. Once it has done its job, be sure to use the NHTSA guidelines above, along with manufacturer's instructions, to determine whether or not it's safe enough to potentially withstand another crash and keep your little one well-protected.