Car seats are designed to save your baby's (or child's) life in the event of an accident, cradling their proportionately huge heads so they don't snap their weak little spines or crush their soft pelvic bones into their itty bitty internal organs. Yeah, they are important.
So along with making sure you've got it installed correctly, that you're using it correctly and age appropriately for your baby or older child, that it's not expired ... you also have to think about what happens to your car seat if you actually DO, god forbid, get into a car accident.
Even if your baby's not in the car, or your car isn't totalled, there are multiple things you need to consider, because a car seat that has done its job in an accident often will have damage that would prevent it from being safe in a second.
So how do you know if you need a new seat after an accident?
There's actually a pretty simple checklist.
- Was anyone hurt? If yes, you need a new car seat.
- Did the airbags deploy? If yes, you need a new car seat (though a 'no' doesn't mean you don't ... airbags only deploy under specific conditions, so a major accident can still occur without them deploying).
- Was the door next to the seat hit? If your seat was installed on the side, and the door it sits next to was hit, you need a new seat.
- Was the vehicle (or both, if more than one was involved) able to drive away from the accident? If so, you may not need a new seat, as the impact was likely to be minor.
- Can you see any damage to the seat? If the plastic looks whiter (if it's gray or black), if you can see any dents, scrapes, or itty bitty fractures (look like spiderwebs), you definitely need a new seat. But don't be fooled into thinking no visible damage means all is good -- damage to the seat can be invisible, or in a spot you can't see. There are x-rays that can detect micro-fractures, but honestly, they cost more than a new seat -- even the good ones.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration set these particular guidelines (which apply whether or not a child was IN the seat at the time of the accident). Multiple agencies have done tests on seats using sleds varying in speeds from 9 miles per hour, up to 40 miles per house, and then retested them to see if damaged seats had a higher likelihood of failing in a subsequent accident (they do). Very minor accidents (such as those tested at 9 miles per hour), which pass the above checklist, didn't show in any of the studies to damage seats (whew!), but if you're concerned, there is never harm in getting a new seat (some car seat manufacturers require it regardless of severity).
Lastly, if the accident wasn't your fault and you do need a new seat, the other person's car insurance company should pay you the cost to replace your seats. This might vary by state since there are varying types of insurance laws, but I have yet to hear of a state that didn't enforce this, so make sure you push for this!
Did you know these guidelines?
Image via Chris_Short/Flickr