Spring on the Road

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The right car seat makes for a safer ride for children

No matter what is stored in the trunk, a driver's most precious cargo is his or her passengers. Never is that more apparent than when children are on board.

Finding the right car seat can be challenging. When used correctly, such seats can reduce the risk of death by as much as 71 percent, according the Safe Kids Worldwide organization. Whether you are buying a car seat for the first time or upgrading an existing seat as your child grows, being informed can help with the decision-making process.

Access professional reviews

A number of organizations rate available car seats on the market. Consumer Reports and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety are just two of the groups that provide ratings that can take the guesswork out of selecting the best car seats. Regulations change frequently, and car seat engineers continually modify designs to keep kids as safe as possible. Frequently revisit car seat reviews to check whether your seat is still receiving high marks or if it's time to invest in a new car seat.

Rear-facing, longer

Many experts now advise keeping children in rear-facing car seats as long as possible — even up to age two. These seats are being manufacturered to meet higher weight limits in the rear-facing position. However, always verify the exact height and weight limit for the seat by reading the information booklet or the safety data that is printed directly on the seat.

In addition, know how to safely use the seat, including which tethers should be used in which seating positions. Children should sit in the back of the vehicle away from airbags.

Learn proper installation

Consumer Reports notes that about 80 percent of parents and caregivers misuse car seats in one way or another. Follow the directions for safe seat placement and positioning of tethers and safety belts. You can watch videos online on how to install safety seats properly, and many seat brands may direct you to an informational video. Some First Aid and police squads offer complimentary seat checks to reassure parents that seats are installed correctly.

Older children in booster seats, which are designed to position passengers correctly to make use of the vehicle's seat belts, should have a proper fit. The lap belt should lie flat and on top of the thighs. The shoulder belt should rest directly in the middle of the shoulder and not too close to the neck.

Know the types of seats

Children may go through three or more safety seats before they're allowed to safely ride using the vehicle's own passenger restraint system. In addition to infant car seats, manufacturers offer convertible seats, harnessed seats, belt-positioning booster seats, and built-in safety seats. Many children are ready to bid farewell to car seats when they reach about 4-feet-9-inches tall.

Avoid used seats

Unless you can verify the full crash history of a car seat, it is best to buy it new rather than from a thrift store or on the Internet from a third party. Although car seats do not "expire" in the traditional sense, they are stamped with a use-by date. Materials in car seats can degrade over time, and harnesses may stretch. It's wise to replace car seats after several years and treat a new baby in the family to his or her own car seat instead of using a hand-me-down.

Car seats can prevent injuries and death. They're one of the best safety investments parents can make, as long as they're researched and used properly.