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Buckle up with new car seat laws

Child Passenger Safety Technician Chelsey Eaton explains the changes


January 30, 2020

January 2020. Can you believe it? We're wrapping up a month that saw some big changes for those of us hauling children around in our cars. Washington State lawmakers passed some new car seat laws that went into effect January 1, 2020, and I sat down with Child Passenger Safety Technician and Columbia County Public Health Program Coordinator, Chelsey Eaton to learn more about the new laws and car seat safety.

The changes align Washington state's law with the most recent recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the new laws are pretty clear. Infants and toddlers under the age of two must be in a rear facing child seat, either an infant seat or a convertible car seat. Toddlers aged two to four must be in an age appropriate seat, forward or rear facing, that has a harness and until the child reaches the height and weight limits of their seat. Children ages four and up must be in a booster seat until they reach 4'9" in height. Children under the age of 13 must ride in the backseat when practical.

Chelsey explained the breakdown in requirements for each age group. Infants and toddlers two years old and younger are safest when they are rear facing. Car seats for this age group are designed to redirect impact, and protect the head, neck, and spine in the event of a crash. Keep in mind that the laws only state the basic minimum requirements for safety. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children remain rear facing until they reach their car seat's maximum height or weight limits. Those requirements differ with each seat, so be sure to check the owner's manual that came with your child's car seat.

"In a crash, a broken leg is better than a broken neck," Chelsey reminded me, referring to a common concern about limited leg space in rear-facing seats.

'If you are worried about the comfort of your rear facing child, remember that they will find a comfortable way to place their legs. Kids joints are much more forgiving than adults" she said.

Toddlers and preschoolers aged two to four years must ride in a car seat with a harness, whether they are rear facing or forward facing. Again, it is safest to keep the kids in rear facing seats as long as possible which is typically when the height or weight limits on car seats are reached.

When you flip your child's car seat to face the front, refer to your car's manual to see if it is equipped with a LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system. These anchors have been carefully researched and designed to help secure seats, however, your car's seat belt is just as reliable as tethering systems according to Chelsey.

One hazard Chelsey taught me about was seatbelt airbags. If you drive a new vehicle, check your owner's manual to see if your seatbelts are equipped with airbags. This airbag feature can seriously compromise your car seat's safety features and result in serious injury. It is strongly advised that you use the LATCH system if your car is equipped with seatbelt airbags.

Children four years old and older must ride in a booster seat until they are 4'9" tall. This usually happens for children between 8-12 years of age. A properly fitting booster seat will put the upper part of the seat belt across the child's shoulder, so that it crosses over the collar bone, just like you and I sit in the car. The flat part of the belt should run along the upper thighs.

Once children reach 4'9" in height, they may be ready to say adios to the booster seat. If your child can sit with their back straight against the back of the seat, bend their knees over the edge of the seat and their feet rest on the floor, and the belt sits properly over their body, they may be ready to go without a booster. The final criteria, however, is whether or not your child can stay in position for the duration of the trip. If they can stay seated without wiggling all over, they are ready.

Chelsey and I ended our chat with some great car seat safety tips and reminders. When installing your child's seat, remember that the seat should move around no more than 1" and if you choose to secure the seat with a lap belt, be sure the belt is locked before you drive off.

Be very careful with car seat add-ons. Strap covers, car seat inserts, and other popular items are often not tested for safety and can cause serious injuries if you are in a crash. If it doesn't come in the box with your seat, the chances of the item being tested for safety concerns are slim.

If you have loose items such as a child's sippy cup, be aware of how heavy each item is. Chelsey pointed out that items like these can become painful projectiles in a crash, and they need to be secured correctly.

And, finally, remember that puffy coats and thicker clothing are not safe to buckle up with. If you have to adjust the straps to accommodate the extra clothing, the straps will not secure the child in the seat in the event of a crash.

As a CPST, Chelsey does offer car seat checks, and is happy to answer any car seat questions. She is located in the Columbia County Public Health Office. Having kids leave her office safer than they came in is her ultimate goal, and her services are not limited to just parents. Grandparents, babysitters, and anyone else who will be installing a car seat are welcomed and encouraged, especially with summer right around the corner. Chelsey can be reached at

You can never be too safe when it comes to buckling kids in. A fight with a grumpy, rear-facing toddler is temporary; the damage from improperly faced car seats may not be. is a great website for more information on the new laws and they answer many FAQs.


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