I'm happy to be offering the 6th installment in the Car Seat Safety Series, written by Megan Arce, CPST (Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician) and mother of two little princesses.
CAR SEATS EXPIRE, TOO!
For weeks now, I have been pushing the importance of using a car seat, and using it properly. However, this week I am going to discuss when a car seat shouldn’t be used, and that is when any of the following occur:
- It has reached the end of its useful life, or exceeded its expiration date
- It has been involved in a crash, even minor
- It has been checked as airline baggage
- It has been recalled and cannot be fixed
- Its history is unknown or questionable
1. Yes, car seats expire! It isn’t a ploy by the car seat manufacturer to squeeze more money out of you and make you buy more seats (yes, I have heard this numerous times). Simply put, just like every other plastic item, the plastic used to make the seat wears down over time. And car seats, for the most part, live in the car and are exposed to intense summer heat, and brutal winter cold, both of which exacerbate the breaking down process. Imagine if you will, a plastic toy left outside in the elements -- the plastic becomes thin, discolored and brittle and eventually it cracks. The plastic in your car seat is not any different! After time, it may not provide the best protection for child when in a crash -- the harness (with child in it!) could rip right out of the weak plastic.
The life span of a car seat ranges by brand/make/model, but is anywhere from 6 to 10 years. The date of manufacture or, if you are lucky, the actual expiration date (or the “do not use after” date) will be imprinted right into the plastic shell of the seat (likely on the bottom) or the same information will be found on a sticker. If only the date of manufacture is on the seat, and you are not aware of how many years it is good, it is generally safe to assume it has a 6-year life span (most do). Some newer generations of seats are adding a year or two to this, and some “combination” seats will have a separate expiration for the internal harness and another longer one for use as a booster. As always, read your owner’s manual for specific information on a particular seat, but if you are planning to use 8-year-old Johnny’s old car seat for your new baby, most likely Johnny’s seat is expired and baby is going to need a new one!
2. Crashed car seats are not safe to use! Car seats are a “one time use only” item when it comes to crashes. They are designed to distribute crash force energies over a greater surface to make the crash less severe for the child in the seat. After it has done this once, it may not ever do it again. If the seat has been involved in a crash, even a minor one, it needs to be replaced. Car seat manufacturers will have varying qualifying standards -- some companies say only replace the seat if it was closest to point of impact, others say replace only if airbags deployed, etc., but ALL crashes warrant inspection, evaluation, phone calls to both the car seat manufacturer and the insurance company, and in most cases, all will recommend replacement of the seats.
3. Can checking your car seat as baggage on the airplane be similar to it being in a vehicular crash? You bet! Baggage handlers are not known for their gentle touch, and car seats do not get any special treatment in this department! They are flung around and thrown to the ground from high levels, and the damage they could incur could be similar to that of a car crash. My opinion is the risk is not worth it! When your car seat (and bags for that matter!) leave your side, there is no way of knowing what happens to them. Your safest option is to bring it on the plane and use it (safest option for child too!), check it in its original cardboard box, or have a car seat waiting for you on the other end of your journey. Avoid checking them, but if you do, please inspect every nook and cranny before using it.
4. As a Child Passenger Safety Technician, I have a list of car seat recalls I keep in my kit, but a good Internet search can help you know if your car seat has been involved in a recall. If it has, and it is correctable, do not delay in getting it fixed. If it cannot be corrected, it needs to be replaced. Period.
5. “Unknown history” of a car seat is just as dangerous as the unknown history of a babysitter! Given all the items mentioned above, any and all of those things could have happened to the secondhand seat that appears to be in perfect condition. The thing is, you just never know. Used car seats ads are plastered all over Craiglist and eBay. I see seats in children’s resale/consignment stores, yard sales and swap meets. What do they all have in common? UNKNOWN history. We have no way of knowing what that seat has seen, and we do NOT want our babies being the test pilot to see if the seat would hold up in a crash! Secondhand seats just are not a safe choice. The only exception would be if you were given a seat by a trusted family member or friend and trusted them to give you the full history of the seat (and believed them!). Even if you have to scrimp and save to buy a new car seat, it is the one and only item worthy of this scrimping and saving, since it is the only one that can potentially save your child’s life! Skip the Jumperoo and Diaper Genie and buy a nice, new SAFE car seat for Junior.
Now… say you have a car seat that fits any of the above “bad” criteria -- what do you do with it??? Well, I assure you, promise you even, that if you put it in your trash or on your curb, it WILL be stolen and reused by somebody else (you know what they say- one man’s trash is another man’s treasure!). Clearly, this is a problem. So before you put it in the trash, cut all the harness straps out, take the cover off, write “CRASHED/EXPIRED/UNSAFE/DO NOT USE” (or anything else that comes to mind) in permanent marker. Sadly, I have still had one stolen after all that, so to take it one step farther, either hide it deep in your trash can under the garbage, or tie it up in a trash bag so it isn’t obvious what it is. You can also, if you have high levels of stress anyway and need a useful place to exert energy, take a sledgehammer to the plastic shell to crack it. The best answer, of course, would be to RECYCLE “bad” car seats! Unfortunately, most recycle facilities will not take car seats. Or they will, but then they’ll just take them to the landfill. So it’s a challenge to recycle them, but if you can, please do, and share your recycling story in the comments below. We’d love to hear recycling success stories! I have been on a car seat recycle mission for several months, have taken a great deal of bad car seats out of circulation and to the one recycling plant that agreed to recycle them. It’s kind of my “thing.” With any luck (and with customer demand), more car seat manufacturers will start their own recycling programs. Until then, destroy them, hide them, do whatever you can to get your children out of them and keep others from going into them!
When you know better, you do better!
Car Seat Safety Series