When you’re driving, you need to focus on the road, other vehicles, and traffic signals. The one thing you don’t want to worry about is the safety of your child. A properly installed car seat, with the child securely buckled in, leaves you free to keep your eyes and mind on driving.

The Basics

Child car seats can be complex. Which one do you get? Where do you install it? How do you install it? Let us demystify this complex problem for you.

First, always purchase a car seat that has been certified as safe by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) or the Juvenile Product Manufacturers Association (JPMA). These two groups test car seats to make sure what you are buying is safe for your child. They will not certify a seat that does not meet their safety criteria.

Second, make sure that the seat you purchase fits both your child and the vehicle in which it will be installed. Infants should always have a rear-facing car seat, and it should never be installed in the front seat of a vehicle.

Third, make sure that the car seat is installed correctly. Each car seat comes with an instruction manual detailing the proper installation procedures. If you are confused, can’t quite get it, or simply need an extra set of eyes—or hands—to help, you can check with your local police station or fire department to see if they provide assistance with the proper installation of the car seat. It’s best to call in advance, because not every police or fire station has a certified Child Passenger Safety (CPS) technician.

Finally, know the local laws in regard to child seats. They vary from state to state and noncompliance can often carry a hefty fine. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety provides an easy-to-use website detailing the laws for each state. You can find it at: http://www.iihs.org/laws/childrestraint.aspx

Normal Wear

Car seats come with an expiration date. This is usually 6 years from the date of manufacture, but it can vary by manufacturer. Check with the manufacturer of your car seat to find out the expiration date.

Used car seats may compromise the safety of your child. Do not purchase a used car seat unless you know the complete history. Car seats that have previously been in accidents may not protect your child as well as a newly manufactured car seat.

What Can Go Wrong

If your car seat is not installed properly, it will not provide the highest level of safety during normal operation and may fail to provide any protection in case of a vehicular accident.

An unsecured child can be ejected from the car seat when you accelerate or brake or during an accident. Be sure your child is secured properly to the car seat.

Care and Maintenance

You can clean car seats with nonabrasive cleansers that are child safe.

If your car seat is damaged in any way, you should replace it immediately to provide the highest level of protection for your child.

Keep aware of any recalls on your car seat. For recalls and other information, visit the Consumer Product Safety Commission site at http://www.cpsc.gov or Safe Kids US at http://www.usa.safekids.org.

Advances in technology and knowledge produce safer car seats. It is a good idea to upgrade your car seat on a routine basis to take advantage of the increased safety.

With the right car seats installed properly, you can feel confident that your children are protected when they are in your car.