Rules of the Road for Safe Travel with Your Family

Top car safety tips for driving with children

A toddler girl in a pink jacket is safely strapped in her car seat in the back seat of a car.

Top car safety tips for driving with children

Did you know that motor vehicle injuries are the leading cause of death for children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)?

In California, motor vehicle occupant injuries are among the top five causes of both death and hospitalization for children under 16, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Fortunately, parents can make all the difference to these daunting statistics and reduce the risk to their child significantly with the proper use of child restraints. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, car seat use in passenger vehicles reduces the risk of death for infants under 1 year old by 71 percent, and for kids 1 to 4 years old by 54 percent.

“Every parent wants to keep their child safe,” says Mackenzie Coffin, a pediatrician at Scripps Clinic Carmel Valley. “When it comes to your children and the car, prevention is the best medicine.”

Prepare for any trip with your children with the following rules of the road:

Infants should ride facing the rear

Keep your baby in a rear-facing car seat for as long as possible for the best protection. As of 2017, California law requires that a child must be in a rear-facing seat until they are at least 2 years old, unless the child weighs 40 pounds or more or is 40 or more inches tall. 

“A rear-facing car seat provides the best protection for the head, neck and spine,” says Dr. Coffin.

Preschoolers should be in a forward-facing car seat

When your child outgrows the rear-facing seat, use a forward-facing seat with a five-point harness in the back seat of your vehicle. Children must be in a car seat or booster seat in the car’s back seat until they are 8 years of age. 

“Keep your child in the five-point harness seat for as long as possible and don’t rush to a booster seat as there is a reduction in the level of protection for your child,” says Dr. Coffin. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that your child ride in a five-point harness seat until age 4. If your child outgrows the weight or height limit of their forward-facing seat harness before age 4, consider getting another seat with a harness approved for higher weights and heights. Most forward-facing car seats will hold a child between 40 and 65 pounds. Your owner’s manual will have the height and weight limits for your car seat.

Use a specific booster seat for your school-age child

The AAP recommends using a belt-positioning booster seat until the seat belt in your car fits properly, usually when your child is 4 feet 9 inches tall and 8 through 12 years old. Most children will not fit in vehicle seatbelts until 10 or 11 years old. 

“Children are safest when they are in the back seat of the car properly restrained until they are 13 years old,” says Dr. Coffin.

Make sure your car seat is installed correctly

Check the label of your car seat to make sure it is the right one for your child’s age, weight and height , and check the expiration date. When installing a forward-facing seat, make sure to attach the top tether after you tighten and lock the seat belt or lower attachments.

Once your car seat is installed, make sure you can’t move it more than an inch side-to-side or front-to-back. Once your child is strapped in, pinch the strap at your child’s shoulder, and if you can’t pinch any excess webbing, you’re ready to roll.

If you have questions or want to have your installation checked, certified child passenger safety technicians and child seat-fitting stations are available throughout California. Find a technician or station close to you on The National Child Passenger Safety Certified Technicians website

“Starting with your infant’s very first journey home from the hospital, parents are responsible for traveling safely,” says Dr. Coffin. “Using a child safety seat and following the above guidelines is not only supported by the law, but is also truly the best protection you can give your child to ensure their safety.”