It’s easy to drive to school in the morning making judgments about fellow parents and how well they appear to be obeying the child safety seat laws – but how well do you really know the laws? Are what you know laws or guidelines? That seems to be a popular misconception.
I decided to contact Corporal Heather Cobler who is listed on the Colorado State Patrol car seat website as Child Passenger Safety Program Coordinator.
When I put in my call to her I realized there were many myths and misconceptions out there, so I reached out to my online area friends and came up with a list of what I think will be major eye opening results.
Corporal Cobler pointed out that the biggest problem with parents use of car seats is that many of them are not installed correctly. One of the best resources they have are videos, found here on the Colorado State Patrol website.
There are also FIT stations around the state that will help you install your car seat. Simply call ahead to make an appointment and for free they will make sure your car seats fit your children, fits in the car and, for parents facing financial hardship, some Fit Stations provide car seats at a reduced price or for a small donation.
One of the most common misconceptions is the difference between best practices and actual enforceable laws. Here’s a handy flyer that outlines the actual legal statutes (there’s also one in Spanish available on the website). It’s important to know both in order to protect yourself and to keep your children safe. All child passenger safety violations are primarily enforced and the minimum fine is $82 per violation. This means that the driver can be stopped and ticketed if an officer sees an unrestrained or improperly restrained child in the vehicle.
As for my friend’s suggestions, I asked Corporal Cobler some more specific questions:
At what age can a child ride in the front seat and should you turn the air bag off?
When a child reaches the age and size required for a front facing car seat, that child can go anywhere – including the front seat – so any age or size after that. This is the legal requirement.
Best practices are that you should wait until the child is 13. However, often people are carrying multiple children (for example, in a carpool) and so you should always place the oldest child in front.
Yes, if you have the options to turn the airbags off, please do. However, this is complicated in some vehicles, so use your best judgment. Some cars can actually have the airbags completely disabled and if you’re going to let a child under 13 ride in the front very often then be sure to have it completely disabled.
When you’re on vacation is it your responsibility to know the laws in every state?
The short answer is yes. Depending on the officer who stops you and other circumstances you can be held liable for a the specific laws in each state – despite your ignorance. Chances are an officer who knows you’re from out of state will probably inform you of local law and let you off with a warning, but they are under no obligation to do so.
So, for your traveling needs, here are links to surrounding states car seat laws:
- Wyoming has some of the toughest laws in the country (kids have to be in car seats until 9 years)
- New Mexico
- Some other helpful websites are “Car Seat Laws” and “DMV.org“, however, I’d be tempted to go to the state source in case these sites are out of date.
The fairly new guideline is that a child has to be 8 years old to be out of a booster seat, should you also consider weight and height?
According to Corporal Cobler, yes! 8 years old is a guideline that makes it easier for law enforcement officers to enforce, however, if you have a small 8 year old you should leave the child in the booster seat until they reach 4’9″ which is the best practices guideline to keep you safe in adult seat belts.
Similarly, if a child is in a rear facing seat and is cramped (picture knees jammed in the air) do you have to keep the child in a rear facing seat.
No. The actual law is in a rear facing seat at 1 year and/or 20 lbs, Although best practices say to keep a child in a rear facing seat until 2 years old. However, if that child is WAY over 20 lbs, look at putting the child in a forward facing seat for comfort and safety.
How are the laws enforced when children in the car are from several families? Is it the responsibility of the driver or the parent to make sure their kids are properly restrained?
According to Corporal Cobler it’s the responsibility of the driver UNLESS the parent is in the car. If the parent is in the car (whether driving or not) they are issued the citation for their child. If you are taking a load of children – whether they are your children or not – it’s your responsibility for all the children to be properly restrained. So, consider keeping a few extra booster seats in your car and knowing how to install them “on the fly” in case you need them.
Corporal Cobler went on to point out common errors with car seats. One of the most common in Colorado is when children are restrained in heavy snowsuits and coats. Most parents are concerned for the comfort of their child (plus probably the annoyance of getting them in and out of a car seat) and will try to put children in car seats with big puffy coats on. However, if you examine the kids this leaves a HUGE pocket of air between the kids and the seat belts and in an accident they’re not protected. Corporal Cobler recommends taking the child out of the coat, putting them into the car seat and then placing the coat on the child backwards to keep them warm.
Another tip is to NOT buy the “off the shelf” solutions to keeping babies heads from moving in the car seat. Most of these are not approved by safety institutions and are not flame retardant. Corporal Cobler recommends rolling up a towel and putting it around the babies head – the idea is to make sure nothing is between the baby and the car seat.
Also a reminder to never buy a car seat from a garage sale or used unless it’s from a trustworthy friend and you know exactly what’s happened to that car seat. You can also rent car seats in the Denver area. Please call and make an appointment with a FIT station to see how well you’re doing!