Are Used Car Seats Safe for Baby?

Car Seat Yard Sale
The used car seat at this yard sale could be dangerous for your child. Getty/David Sacks

Thrifty parents often ask whether it's OK to purchase a used car seat from a garage sale or an online auction. While a used car seat might save dollars, it could also compromise safety. If you're hoping to save some money by borrowing or buying a used car seat, here are some tips to help you determine whether or not it's safe.

Car Seat Age & History

Do not buy a used car seat unless you can verify the age of the seat.

There should be a manufacturer's label on the back or bottom of the seat that gives the manufacture date or a specific expiration date. A general rule of thumb is that harnessed car seats expire 6 years from the date of manufacture, unless there is a different expiration date marked on the seat. Booster seats often have longer lifespans. If you're not sure about the expiration date, call the manufacturer. The date of manufacture and manufacturer contact information must be on one of the seat labels by law. If the labels are missing from the car seat, it's best not to use it, as the labels would also give you important model information that would alert you to potential recalls. How long a car seat was in storage or the temperature of the storage location does not affect the expiration date!

You also must learn the crash history of the seat and use the model number to verify that the seat is not under recall.

The crash history is important because car seat manufacturers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have replacement criteria for whether or not the car seat is still safe to use after a crash. Some car seat manufacturers say to replace the car seat after any crash, period.

NHTSA and some other manufacturers base the decision on things like whether or not there were injuries, whether the vehicle airbags deployed, or how close the point of impact was to baby's car seat. It's often difficult to gather those details from strangers when buying a used car seat! Even car seats involved in fairly serious crashes may not show outward signs of damage, but that doesn't mean they're still safe to use.

You must also determine whether used car seats still have all of the original parts needed for safety. Some parts can be lost over time. One illustration of this is a harness on a combination seat that is removed when the child outgrows it, and is later replaced without a seemingly small piece that affects the function of the harness in a crash.

The Issue of Trust

Buying a used car seat means you are trusting the seller to give you information honestly. Can you trust a stranger on the other end of eBay to tell you whether or not that car seat was in a crash? Do you know the person at the yard sale well enough to know that they are car-seat savvy and have maintained the car seat according to manufacturer's instructions? When you trust a stranger to give you that kind of information honestly, you are essentially trusting them with your child's life, so it's important to make that choice wisely.

My suggestion is to budget for a new car seat and cut costs elsewhere if need be.

If you have a trusted friend or family member who is willing to give you a used car seat, that may be a safe choice if you can verify all of the things mentioned above, as well as making sure that the car seat is not expired.

Can't Rely On Your Eyes

While some car seats that are not expired and have not been in a crash can look horribly dirty and worn out, the opposite can also be true. Some very old car seats may still look new, particularly if they spent a lot of time on the store shelf or packed away somewhere before use. Car seats that have been involved in a crash may not appear damaged. No one can visually inspect a car seat for you or certify that it's safe to use if the history is unknown or it has been in a crash.

If you cannot verify all of the things mentioned here, the car seat is considered unsafe for use, even if it appears to be in good condition. Crashes can cause stress and structural weakness that isn't visible from the outside, and older car seats can be weakened by many seasons of heat and cold in the car. Unless a used car seat is coming from a close friend or family member and meets the above criteria, the best choice is to buy a new car seat for your baby.

Heather Wootton Corley is a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician-Instructor.