Close to 60% of children's car seats are either installed incorrectly or misused in a way that could reduce their likelihood of keeping your child safe in the event of a crash, federal officials claim.

Boasting one of the strictest child car seat laws in the nation, New Jersey is home to free child passenger safety checks on a regular basis, meant to help ensure your child is as safe as possible when you hit the road.

As part of National Child Passenger Safety Week, advocates are urging parents to review New Jersey's car seat law, and seek expert assistance with installation if they're not sure about the rules or unhappy with their own install job.

"A lot of parents really try very hard to do things the right way, but when we see car seat inspections, we find that even the parents that are the most attentive to detail tend to miss a few things and make the car seat less safe," Frank Neary, car seat technician for AAA Club Alliance, told New Jersey 101.5. "Probably the single most common mistake parents make installing a car seat is that it's not tight enough."

When properly installed, AAA notes, a car seat should not be able to move more than one inch in any direction. Parents are advised to use either the vehicle's seat belt or LATCH system to secure the seat — but not both, unless instructed to do so.

Parents are also advised to avoid any "gadgetry" that didn't come with the car seat. Mirrors and toys, for example, have not been crash-tested with the seat.

Another common mistake is related to the attached seat harnesses that are meant to secure a child to the seat, AAA said. The chest clip should be positioned at armpit level, and the harnesses need to be snug and lie flat without twists.

"The shoulder harnesses — they should be tight enough that when you pinch them, you can't grab any material," Neary said.

Where the harness sits depends on the position of your child's seat.

In New Jersey, which matches recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the child car seat laws state:

  • Children under age 2 AND weighing less than 30 pounds must be secured in a rear-facing child safety seat that is equipped with a five-point harness.
  • Children ages 2 – 4 and weighing up to 40 pounds must be secured in a child-safety seat equipped with a five-point harness, either rear-facing (up to the height and weight limits of the seat) or forward-facing.
  • Children ages 4 – 8 and less than 4 feet 9 inches tall) must be secured in a forward-facing seat equipped with a five-point harness (up to the height and weight limits of the seat) or in a booster seat.
  • Children ages 8 – 17 must use the vehicles seat belt. The safest place for children under 13 is the back seat.

"It is more stringent because, quite frankly, the safest place for a child to be in a car is in a car seat for as long as possible," Neary said.

In 2018, according to NHTSA, approximately a third of children under 13 killed in passenger vehicles were not restrained in car seats, booster seats or seat belts.

Free child-seat checks in New Jersey, in all 21 counties, are typically scheduled a couple times per month. Neary said it's smart for parents to arrive with the child to ensure a solid fit, if the child has already been born.

"We don't generally just install a seat for you and send you on your way," Neary added. "We will work with you to instruct you ... because you're probably going to have to take the car seat out at some point, for a car wash or to change to another vehicle."

The U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finds an estimated 59% of car seats and 20% of booster seats are misused in a way that could reduce their effectiveness. Even worse, some children ride with no restraint at all.

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