Young Kids May Be Able to Unbuckle Car Seats

A new survey by parents shows that children as young as one year old can remove their car safety seats.

“We discovered that children can remove their car seats from their child cars by their fourth birthday. And there is an alarming 43% who do this when the car is moving,” Lilia Reyes MD, a pediatric emergency medicine specialist at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven. It was first reported at 12 months. These findings will be presented at the annual meeting of Pediatric Academic Societies in Denver.

How secure are child car seats?

Reyes met two mothers who were in minor car accidents while working in Yale’s pediatric emergency department. Reyes was told by the mothers that it happened after they realized their children had not buckled themselves. She and her Yale colleagues surveyed 378 parents with young children to find out how often it happens. The following are some other findings 51% of families, or approximately 191 families, reported that at most one child had removed their car seat buckles. 75% of these were under 3 years old. The youngest was twelve months old.

Girls unbuckled more often than boys; 59% of those who unbuckled were males.

Reyes says that parents were not asked whether they were certain they had properly buckled their children. There is always a chance that the children were not properly buckled. She says that parents often hear a click when the buckle latches. She says that children are able to unbuckle their seats physically, but they are only beginning to learn reasoning skills around the age of 3 to understand the consequences. There were many types of seats that parents used. They used a combination of the five-point harness, convertible and booster seats depending on the child’s weight and age.

Are Car Seats Really Buckled?

Lorrie Walker, Safe Kids USA’s technical advisor and training manager, said that the study raises questions about child restraint. She says that Federal motor vehicle safety standard 213 requires that the buckle be released using 9 to 14 pounds of pressure. It can be difficult for adults to unbuckle the harness. She wonders if there was an issue with the locking mechanism in certain cases.

A buckle can appear to be buckled even though it is not fully latched.

She says that one of the biggest mistakes parents make when placing their child in a car seats is to either loosely attach the harness straps, or place them in the wrong slots. She says that if these errors occur, it makes it easier for children to climb out. Jennifer Stockburger, Consumer Reports’ program manager for vehicle and child safety, was surprised to learn that even a one-year-old child could remove the seat. WebMD did not include Stockburger in the study, but she reviewed the results.

She says, “It doesn’t surprise me that an older child wearing a harness can unbuckle its own.”

She says she can’t recommend one car seat brand over another because the buckle is not as safe. Consumer Union conducts tests on child car seats and keeps in mind federal standards regarding the buckle release force. Stockburger states that buckle release force has never caused a seat to fail, whether it is too much or too small. She wonders sometimes if a child is wriggling out of a loose belt without unbuckling it. A certified child passenger safety technician (CPST) can inspect the child’s car seat to ensure it is properly installed. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), has a list of these inspection stations. You can search by zip code.

You can also find information about guidelines for child car seats on the site. These guidelines have been recently updated by NHTSA, American Academy of Pediatrics. These findings will be presented at a conference for medical professionals. These findings should not be considered final as they have not been subject to the peer review process in which experts outside the medical community scrutinize the data before it is published in a medical journal.

Updated 01/24/22