Car Seat Safety: Are Secondhand Seats Safe?

secondhand toddler seats

Photo by 3wonderfullboys

Many CafeMoms who are feeling the pinch are asking whether it's okay to buy or accept a secondhand toddler seat for their child. The big dilemma here is, how  to tell if the seat is in good working order and has never been in an accident. Would you take the risk?

"If this seat has never been in an accident, is not expired, and is coming from a friend that you trust 100 percent, it is fine to use it," says hurleydoll18. "With a used seat, you are essentially putting your child's life in the hands of that person, so you want to be able to trust them with your child's life."


"I don't care if new car seats were $2,000 and I had to take out a loan for it, I would NEVER EVER get a used car seat, no matter if I'm poor," mamiyounqin says. "I wouldn't even take one from my sister! Whenever I do something thinking there's no harm in it, it always backfired. I would rather know my child is as safe as can be."

carseatmama, a CafeMom and a Child Passenger Seat Technician, says both moms are right. If you feel comfortable with the used seat's history, go for it. If you are the slightest bit wary, it's not worth it. Here, carseatmama's tips to guide your own decision:

You should NEVER buy or accept a secondhand seat:

From someone you don't really know and trust -- even a neighbor or co-worker

From a consignment shop, yard sale, or online classified ad

If the seat is more than 6 years old, which means it has expired. Check for a sticker containing the model number and date of manufacture. (This has less to do with the plastic weakening and more with constantly improving technology. An older seat might have an outdated safety design.)

You CAN CONSIDER buying or using a secondhand seat from a trusted family member or friend if:

They can assure you beyond a shadow of a doubt that the seat has never been in an accident -- either occupied or not

They are the original owner (so you are certain they were not lied to when they got the seat)

The seat is not expired and is in good condition, has all the straps, and was stored properly to protect it from extreme heat or cold (which could alter the seat's durability)

The harness straps were never put in a washing machine with fabric softener (which diminishes the flame retardant's ability to protect your child from burns should the car catch on fire during a crash)

The seat has an owner's manual (this is important because every seat is designed for different weights, and you shouldn't put your child in a seat below his weight limit -- you can usually get a free replacement manual from the manufacturer).

Still wondering if there are any exceptions to the above rules, I asked carseatmama:

Is there some way to tell if a seat has been in an accident or unsafe?

No -- not by just looking at it. Often the damage is in the form of tiny cracks invisible to the eye that weaken the seat and may cause it to fail during a crash. You might see stress marks along the belt path, but the lack of them does not prove it was never in a crash.

The secondhand store near me "certifies"  that its used car seats have never been in a crash, so why can't I buy one there?

Because this so-called "certification" is based only on the promise given by the original owner -- the owner selling the seat for money.

I was in a car accident, but my child's seat looks fine. Why do I have to discard it?

Because the damage may be invisible to your eye, and this is a chance you do not want to take. If you were in a crash that involves frame damage or if the airbags deployed (in either vehicle), the car seat MUST be replaced, whether a child was in the seat or not.

In a less severe crash, check with the car seat manufacturer, since each one has slightly different rules for this. Britax has a very specific list you need to go through, while Graco says to replace regardless of the severity of the crash.

I just can't afford a new seat. Where can I get a free or low-cost one?

Many communities have resources for offering free or low-cost seats. You usually have to be on public assistance and may need to show proof. Find out if your community has a Safe Kids USA, which may offer some resources. Look for Find Events and Coalitions Near You and use the drop-down menu to find your state.

Thanks, carseatmama!

Hey, and another place you might try for free seats is at car seat checks held by your local police department. When we had our first child, the police officer didn't like the way a certain metal piece on our infant seat looked, so he pulled a brand new Evenflo out of his truck. He gave it to us free and installed it, no questions asked.

Want more car seat help and advice? Check out Toddler Seat Do's and Don'ts, and join the private groups Carseat Reviews and Recommendations, Carseat Safety, and Car Seat Safety.

++Check back here and in Pregnancy Buzz, Baby Buzz and Big Kid Buzz all this week for best buckling tips for your kiddos. And don't forget to enter our four -- FOUR! -- car seat giveaway contests.

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