Why winter coats and car seats are a dangerous combination

Keep your child safe in the car by removing their coat when buckling up.

Staying warm and safe in the car. Photo by Emily McKenzie

Staying warm and safe in the car. Photo by Emily McKenzie

With winter weather knocking at the door, kids will be heading outside bundled up for warmth and safety. However, the same coats that keep your child safe outside in the winter wind can make their car seat fit them improperly. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration recommends children do not wear bulky coats in their car seats. Coats should be removed before children are buckled up for every ride, every time.

Why is this? Winter coats are bulky; even when children appear to be snuggly fitted to their car seats, the coats can introduce slack to the harnessing system. This can be easily fixed by removing the child’s winter coat and then adjusting their straps so they lay snuggly against their body. Safe Kids USA gives us the following tip to be sure a child’s car seat is adjusted properly: “Make sure the harness is tightly buckled and coming from the correct slots (check your car seat manual). With the chest clip placed at armpit level, pinch the strap at your child’s shoulder. If you are unable to pinch any excess webbing, you’re good to go.”

The potential risk of a child being improperly restrained includes additional injury in a crash, or potentially even ejection from their child restraint. NBC’s Today Show recently featured a segment titled “Car seat alert: Winter coats could endanger your child.” The crash test video included illustrates the potential dangers of incorrectly restraining your child in their car seat. In this video segment, the child dummy is thrown free of their car seat when a simulated crash test is conducted with the child wearing a coat and having loose harness straps. When the same test is repeated without the coat and the dummy correctly harnessed, the child remains safe in the seat after the crash test.

Many parents will choose to add a product to keep their child warm instead of a coat. These additional products are sold for use in car seats, but are often unsafe and not recommended. One common item is a special insert that lies behind the child and then zips up over them after they are buckled. This is also not safe or recommended due to the extra padding that is added behind the infant. It is safe to use a canopy that goes over the car seat to keep the child warm because like a blanket, the canopy doesn’t go between the child and the harness.

In order to keep your child warm, you can buckle them in a sweatshirt or thin fleece jacket. Compressible or packable light weight down coats are also acceptable. Once the child is buckled, simply place a blanket in their lap. Children can also put their coat backwards over the top of the harness. Special car seat ponchos are also sold that flip up out of the way so the child can be harnessed, and then drape back down over the top of the child and car seat.

In order to be sure your child is riding safely, visit a certified child passenger safety technician for a car seat check. Data shows that over 80 percent of children’s car seats are installed or used incorrectly. Be sure your child is safe before you’re driving in sleet and snow. Find a car seat tech near you and schedule a time to be sure your most precious cargo is riding safely!

For more information about early childhood education and other topics, visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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