Six Car Seat Errors I’d Approach a Complete Stranger About |

Six Car Seat Errors I’d Approach a Complete Stranger About

admin September 13, 2011


By Jennifer Matlock, Contributing Writer

[Author’s note:  All the pictures below show car seat misuse.  Please do not use your car seats in any of the ways pictured!]

I was certified as a Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST) in February 2000, and the little wallet card I received after completing my class felt like a license to attack (in a nice, helpful way, of course).  I would walk up to complete strangers in the Wal-Mart parking lot to let them know their straps shouldn’t be twisted, their chest clip was too low or their toddler could still be rear-facing.  Once in a blue moon, I would get a polite (though rather tight) smiles or a thank you, but more often I got (on a good day) ignored, and (on a not-so-good day) told off.

It took me a while to realize this, but many people see their car seat use as a PARENTING CHOICE, not a black-and-white, right versus wrong issue.  Unsolicited opinions tend to be kindly tolerated (but ultimately unheeded) by the nice people, and strongly condemned by the less patient.  Most people believe that as long as they’re within their state’s law, they’re doing everything necessary, and for you to stick your nose in is a blatant attack on their right to parent as they see fit.

I learned this the hard way.  Less than a year into my CPS career, I crossed a line.  I pulled into a parking lot just in time to watch a woman buckle a rear-facing infant into the front seat of her vehicle – a vehicle with an active passenger-side air bag.  It had been almost a year of ‘accosting’ people about their car seat use – and almost a year of receiving all manner of rejections – so I was doing my best to be polite and non-confrontational in my approach to her.

I did ask, right up front, if she had the airbag turned off for the passenger seat.  No, she told me, she didn’t.  I tried to be nice about it, but I was very clear that by putting the infant in that place in the vehicle could be fatal.  She brushed me off, telling me that she needed to be able to tend to the baby while she drove.  I didn’t even address the danger of trying to care for an infant while driving.  I pointed out the warnings on her visor, and told her again, that driving with the baby there was VERY dangerous – even if she simply rear-ended someone, that “minor crash” would seriously injure, if not kill the baby.  At that point she just got rude, and told me to get lost (not in those words).

Long story short, I chose to involve the local police instead of letting it go, she spent the night in jail, and it was only through very supportive, very persuasive friends in the local police department and the grace of God that I was able to narrowly avoid a lawsuit.

I’ve thought about that day often in the past 10 years, and several people have asked me “If you had it to do over again, would you push the issue as strongly, or would you just let it go?”  Though I can’t say for sure, having never been caught in that situation again, my guess is that I wouldn’t be able to walk away from a similar situation without saying something.  However, I have definitely become choosier about the car seat errors I would approach a total stranger about.  While a correctly-used car seat is the one that is going to best protect a child in a crash, there are errors that are deadly, and errors that are not.  Here are the deadly errors I won’t walk away without addressing:

 1. A rear-facing only seat installed forward-facing.

Some people call these “infant seats” or “buckets”, but no matter what the name, a seat that is designed to be used rear-facing cannot protect a child when it is used forward-facing.  In fact, in most cases, it won’t even remain in the vehicle’s seat belt.  Using it this way could be fatal, even in a minor collision.

2. A rear-facing car seat installed in front of an active air bag.

3. A harnessed seat not buckled (or LATCHed) in.  In my neck of the woods, a seat that is not secured to the vehicle usually falls into one of two categories – either the seat is being used by a non-English-speaking family that doesn’t understand the basics of how car seats work, or the seat is in a vehicle where another passenger has accidentally unbuckled it and the parents are not aware of it.  Either way, this error can spell disaster.  Unfortunately, fixing an accidentally-unbuckled seat is much easier than trying to communicate with a family that doesn’t speak English, but thankfully my hand gestures and smiles are getting better!

4. An under-age forward-facing child.

Both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have recently updated their safety recommendations to keep children rear-facing longer.  The official AAP recommendation is to keep kids rear-facing to a minimum of 2 years and 30 lbs.  NHTSA’s official recommendation is that children should remain rear-facing to the limits of their seats.  Now, I don’t go around accosting every parent with their 23-month-old kid in a forward-facing seat.  But if I see an obviously young baby (clearly under a year), I do say something.  Rear-facing is always safer, but for those tiny babies, it should be non-negotiable!

5. Only the chest-clip is buckled.  I’ve come across this error a few times just this year.  Some parents mistakenly believe that the chest clip does the same thing that the buckle does, and will use one or the other, instead of both.  However, the chest clip is not designed to restrain a child in a crash.  In fact, most chest clips are designed to pop open or slide down with the force of a crash.  The chest clip is merely a pre-crash positioning device, designed to keep the harness straps on the shoulders so they’re in the right place before a crash happens.

6. Using the wrong seat altogether. This one is a little less specific, and definitely varies by what I see; But, for instance, if I see someone using a harnessed car seat as a booster seat, I’ll say something. Same thing if they’re using the infant-only seat for their 4-year-old, a booster for a child who still sleeps in the car, a car seat with the straps in the wrong place on the child, or using a seat that’s missing parts or put together wrong.

Those are all things I’d speak up about, though these days I go about it much differently.  I carry a business card and I only offer help, not criticism.  I point out exactly what I’ve noticed, and give a simple explanation of how it can be fixed, then hand over my card with the offer “I can help you out now, if you have a few minutes; if not, here’s my card.  Give me a call and we can get that fixed as soon as possible.”

As for the rest, sometimes I’ll leave my card on a windshield if I noticed a car seat with errors inside the vehicle.  Otherwise, I leave the situation alone.  In nearly 12 years of working as a CPS technician, I’ve learned that those who want or will accept help tend to be the ones who go out of their way to look for it.  The rest…I have to leave in God’s hands.

How do you feel about car seat issues?  Is it a parenting decision, or a black-and-white issue with no room for error?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!



Jennifer Matlock started writing before she actually knew how, pestering friends and family members to write down the stories she wanted to tell and ideas she wanted to document.  She’s been doing it on her own for over 30 years now, and currently writes about life, marriage, parenting, Christianity, homeschooling, Real Food, politics, having a temper tantrum in Target and more at Love Will Be Our Home.  Jennifer married Andrew in 1995, and is a full-time stay-at-home(schooling)-mom to Ryan (14), Aaron (11), Kaitlyn (7) and Megan (5).

This is the writings of:



  1. Some people are unaware that they are not using their car seats properly while others fully understand and just don't care. My sister makes her kids buckle their seat belts, but her kids in car seats don't have to be buckled. I think she has done every single one of these 6 things you listed. Not only is it dangerous for her children, but for others in the car. If a child goes flying through the car and hits another person, that person can be seriously injured or die as well. I've had this conversation with her, but she just does not care. Her infants are never buckled into the car seat at the same time that the car seat is buckled to the car. Nor are her car seats ever buckled snugly in the car. Her toddler car seats are usually buckled in, but very loosely and her child doesn't have to be buckled in it. It kills me every time I am there, but I can do nothing about it!
    I firmly believe that it is important to have them installed correctly and your child buckled in properly as well. I even have to hassle my husband about it. He doesn't move the chest buckle up far enough on our toddler, or doesn't tighten the straps enough. If for no other reason than following the law (which we should all do), buckle those car seats properly!
    I do however, have children in booster seats when we travel and they do sleep in them. I can't get a new car seat just for 3 day trips! I simply can't afford it. I had never even heard of that one before. The kids only sleep in the car on those trips that happen once a year, and even then they don't sleep in the car that often.


  2. Wow! I had no idea there were so many things that could be wrong about car seats. I'm not a mom yet but used to work as a nanny and I wonder, looking back, if those car seats were always used 100% correctly. Probably not. Just out of curiousity, what exactly did the woman in your story get arrested for? And what did you narrowly escape being sued for?


  3. @Rebecca – The woman was arrested for striking a police officer (she was absolutely LIVID when they showed up and would not allow her to leave with the seat in front of the air bag). She threatened to sue me for harassment – at the time we lived in Louisiana which had no protection for a civilian doing what I did.

    These days, nearly every state has a "good samaritan" law that to some extent covers CPS technicians that try to keep children from being put at risk, but it's also a good idea for CPS technicians to carry liability insurance if they want or plan to talk to people about car seat safety without being asked for their input.


  4. @Laura – the problem with sleeping in a booster seat is that a booster requires the child to be in the correct position ALL the time, and falling asleep often means the child leans over or slumps out of position. Being out of position at the wrong time can be deadly. Many agencies now recommend keeping a child in a harnessed seat as long as possible for that reason – not just because of kids who fall asleep, but most children aren't mature enough physically or mentally to stay in the correct position 100% of the time. My 8 year old JUST moved into a booster seat for short trips, but will still be using a harnessed seat when we drive the 1400 miles to New Mexico this December. You might find this story insightful:


  5. I think people should mind there own business. Stay out of others lives. This is the problem that we have here, we should take care of ourselves. And it is not your responsibility to tell this women or anyone else what to do, she is an adult and she will have to live with whatever choices she made through out her life. We do not need government or big brother telling us what to do every moment of our lives.

    Yes maybe you see it as dangerous or wrong but what really gives you the right to tell everyone else that your way is best. We have a bunch of elitists running our country telling us what is for our own good. We have so many rules and regulations it is crazy, there comes a time where people need to take responsibility themselves. We keep adding more and more rules for what???? Have the numbers really changed?? No one revisits that, we pass a law saying it is safer but when we look at the statics after the law is in effect for years the numbers have NOT changed.

    What are the real statistics? Read Predictably irrational, it is a real eye opener.

    I personally would be peeved if anyone came over and tried telling me how to do something regardless if it was wrong or right, I bet you would feel the same if I came over to your house and told you what you were doing wrong and called the authorities on you, you crossed the line there.


    • Unfortunately, no one saves lives by minding their own business.

      I would much rather be irritated into life than supported, patted on the back, or “left alone” into something deadly for me or my child.

      My concern is government/ police involvement. I am ALL FOR friends and strangers trying to give a friendly word of caution.


  6. @rdzins – You wrote: "Yes maybe you see it as dangerous or wrong but what really gives you the right to tell everyone else that your way is best."

    The problem with this statement is that it is not "my way" or the way I "see it". In a crash, a rear-facing child in front of an airbag will be seriously and permanently injured, if not killed. Do I think an adult has a right to take that risk? With him/herself, sure. They're an adult, they can decide whether the risk is worth it. Should an adult have the right to put an innocent, helpless baby at risk? I don't think so.

    I realize that as we move into a culture of "do your own thing", the idea of Mind Your Own Business has become the overwhelming cry of the populace. What's right for me is fine for me, and what's right for you is fine for you, as long as neither of us try to force our opinions on the other. The problem is that there are OPINIONS and there are TRUTHS, and what you consider an opinion in this matter is in fact a truth. Each of the situations I listed were chosen because they do put innocent children of serious injury or death. Now, I DO NOT ever approach anyone with the same forceful, line-crossing arrogance that I approached that woman with. I go into each and every situation with a humble suggestion, approaching it with the attitude that "This is a parent that loves his/her child and I'm going to offer them information to help them do their best to keep their child safe." I don't ever assume that the parent is DELIBERATELY putting their child at risk; instead I assume that if they knew what I've spent years learning, they would change what they were doing. When I encounter the parent that truly doesn't care, I don't push the situation, though my heart breaks for the child whose parent doesn't care enough to keep them safe during the most dangerous activity they could do (STATISTICALLY motor vehicle crashes are the number one cause of death and serious injury to children).

    For the record, I don't think that government should be legislating car seat use at all. However, when having to chose between an outdated law that doesn't keep children safe, and an updated law that does, I'll choose the updated one (though my personal preference would be no laws at all). There are two reasons we have restraint laws: 1) because when people are injured in crashes, many times it's the taxpayer that picks up the tab, so to keep costs down the government tries to legislate how we are restrained to minimize those costs; 2) because many people would not restrain themselves or their children at all if there were no consequences. I can't tell you how many people (who have come to ME for help with their car seats) refuse to put their child into a booster seat, even though the child doesn't fit right (and is at risk for serious injury) in the regular seat belt – just because "legally" the child is old enough to not have to use a booster.

    Let me pose a hypothetical to you: If you found out your neighbor was using a taser to discipline his child, would you say or do something? Or does that fall under the same "Stay out of others lives" suggestion you made? What if your best friend was keeping a child shackled to a pipe in her basement and only feeding him one slice of bread and one cup of water every other day? Yes, I'm being a little absurd, but where exactly is the line between staying out of someone's life and protecting an innocent child?

    Getting in a car and driving is generally the most dangerous activity we do on a daily basis. I don't think it's crossing a line to do my best to help parents understand how to best protect their innocent, helpless children during that activity. I realize that some may disagree.


  7. I love that you posted this! I don't agree that the way you use a car seat is a parenting choice! How ridiculous! Yes, it is black and white! I have a HUGE pet peeve when I see friends of mine with the infant seats chest buckles down at their bellies, and the straps wrapped around the outsides of the shoulders instead of over the top. I used to say something but now I just reach over and move it, innocently assuming that the parent just didn't realize it was like that! If they catch me, they usually shrug it off like it doesn't really matter. The chest buckle should be at the armpits, NO lower! Drives me nuts!!
    I will say, though, that my kids are tall, and no one makes a harnessed seat that any one of my kids could be in past about 3.5 yo. I kept my daughter in hers until way past the "safety zone" of having the top of the shoulder harness 1 inch below her shoulders (according to the car seat manufacturer)
    She does occasionally fall asleep in the car (she's now 4.5) but remains upright because we slightly tip her seat back.
    Great post! Keep up the good work!!


  8. Jennifer, you did an article! Thanks for doing this. I found it very helpful, and somehow I almost missed it!

    Absolutely, I think car seats are a black-and-white issue, but I have been accused of thinking that most things are black and white, so eh. Still, when it comes to safety of my children, I can't imagine being offended or litigious if a professional were to approach me with a car seat correction. Then again, if you were "just" another parent (no CPS training, no business card), I don't know that I'd be quite as quick to respond to the advice. I'd still be polite and appreciative, but I'd probably go home first and double check the recommendations before implementing them. Bringing a business card is a really excellent idea.

    Does the very first photo of the smiling girl show a car seat error? I can't find one, and it's kind of freaking me out.


  9. @chan – Yes, I did a car seat one. I figured I owed you one after I flubbed the last one. 🙂

    And no, the very first photo (incidentally, of my 3rd child/oldest daughter who is now EIGHT!) shows correct use (unless you count the projectile in my son's hand – LOL!). Same daughter is the baby in the regular seat belt (with her hand clinging to her actual car seat as if to say "MOM! Put me where I'm safe please!)


  10. To me car seats are a black & white issue. I thought it would be a black & white issue for all parents but I have found out that this isn't the case in the slightest. Most people do not seem to see the importance of car seats. I have actually walked away from a friendship over this. I realised that a friend was not strapping her 2 children into their carseats & was driving with them moving around the back of the car. I even found out later that she never had an infant carseat for them but would put them into the carrycot from her stroller & throw it onto the back seat with them inside.

    I battled internally over whether I should mind my own business or approach her. I prayed & prayed over it & it occurred to me one day that if I didn't say anything & they were in a car accident, I would feel partially responsible for not saying anything. I approached her & said it in a nice way & she got very angry with me & told me to mind my own business. That she had never had a carseat when she was young etc etc. Explaining to her that there are a lot more cars on the road now, travelling at faster speeds made no difference. So I told her that I could not be friends with her anymore because, to me, it shows a complete lack of respect for her children's lives.

    I live in Europe & carseats are a little different here. My 2 year old is rearfacing & will be until she is at least 4. I had to buy a carseat from Sweden in order to get a carseat that would enable me to keep my daughter rearfacing. I also spent a long time looking for a high back booster seat for my daughter. You can not get a harness on a carseat for over 4 year old but I did manage to find a booster seat with a base that allows me to slightly recline the booster when my 7 year old falls asleep during long car journeys. It does stop the slumping forward so I was delighted with that.

    Generally, I do not try to push my carseat standards on anyone else. If something is obviously endangering a child's life, I feel it is my duty to point it out. There are some parents who are genuinely thankful when you point something out & you have potentially prevented a tragedy.
    When people ask why my 2 year old is still rearfacing, I explain that the number 1 cause of death, in car accidents, in children under 4 is a broken neck & being rearfacing prevents that. When they ask "won't her legs get squished?", I say "I can deal with broken legs but I can't deal with a broken neck". They normally look at me strange & change the subject but I feel I have done all I can. They can't claim ignorance anymore.


  11. It's amazing that any of us survived to adulthood without carseats, bicycle helmets, etc. By the time my grandchildren are born we'll probably just be wrapping babies in bubble wrap and not letting them out of the coccoon until they're 21 years old.


  12. I find it sad that you had to write an article about basic safety. As a mother of 3 my children’s’ safety is top on my list of priorities. In fact I just bought a great convertible seat for my daughter that I absolutely love but have to return it because it doesn’t fit in my vehicle safely.
    I’m glad there are people out there that are sticking up for the ones who can’t advocate for themselves. I’m glad you stuck your ground with that lady who had her kid in the front seat.ready but he tired of buckling/unbuckling him in.
    I didn’t ERF with my oldest and only until my 2nd was 18 months. But my youngest (8 months) will be ERF until at least 2yrs old. Now that I have done more research and have learned so much more I regret turning my older 2 when I did.
    1.5yrs ago my husband was rearended by someone going 45 mph. After months of PT and pain meds he now has to decide if he wants more PT or surgury. It isn’t surprising that it is his neck where he ruptured 2 discs. I can’t imagine what that would have done to my children if they were in the car. I thank God every day that they weren’t.


  13. I am all about proper car seat use and have never made one of these errors. However, I am a bit more lax in approaching people and have a waaayyy different perspective. I generally approach people near where I work who do not have their kids in car seats at all or are using a car seat that looks 20 years old. I try to refer people to local organizations that provide free or reduced price car seats, so that they can at least HAVE one. I see it frequently, especially among the urban inner city poor folks or people in rural poverty stricken areas. Gotta be careful though, don’t want to get a gun pulled on me. I educate when there might be an opportunity, but am not going to put my life in danger by doing so. If I can get one person to go get a seat, then that is an accomplishment.

    On the flip side, there are times when I personally wish people would mind their own business. Like the time I was scolded in a parking lot for “letting” my 8 year old ride in the front seat “unrestrained”. She is very tall and had outgrown the height limit on the booster seat, but was wearing an appropriately placed seat belt. I kindly pointed out that I had my 2 younger kids in car seats in the back. Our minivan was in the shop for 4 days, leaving us with the small car, a tiny backseat, and about 8 inches between the car seats. I asked this pushy woman if I should put my daughter in the trunk or strap her to the roof of the car because there is simply no room for her in back. She told me I should go buy a bigger car or leave one of the kids with a babysitter so that no one would have to ride in front. Really?? Correcting an honest mistake is fine, but scolding someone for doing the best they can with a situation is not OK.


  14. Many people have the gift of decisiveness. They are quickly able to dive to the heart of an issue, pare it down to the bones, enabling firm, efficient action. How admirable! Of only it were so easy to sort all of the emotional factors that produce such varied responses to the simplest of questions.
    I’m not here to argue car seat safety. This issue does have some clear cut does and don’ts. Your information on that score is very compelling.
    I personally would feel EXTREMELY threatened if, as above, I was approached by a complete stranger, one admittedly watching me, and talking about my children being harmed or dying. The right or wrong if it aside, you may talk to me about danger but don’t be surprised if my defensive instincts extend to you when I don’t know you, when it’s already obvious by the situation that we don’t understand an issue in the same way. Don’t expect things to improve when you call on someone even more intimidating to back you up. Guaranteed, I will not be my best self. I will not be ready to process new information to its fullest depth. I won’t feel inclined to linger for a demonstration or to have you in my car. And I will also not be in any hurry to talk with you later. However, if you had a small pamphlet or a website I could visit–something you could pass me as you smile and walk by–I would look it over when I’m feeling calmer, and find someone else to talk to if I have any other questions. In that case, I would appreciate your gesture of concern.
    I also understand that there are those who don’t care to listen or change. But then I doubt this kind of purely logical ‘I mean…am I right?’ appeal will make the difference.


    • Hi Nyca,

      I think having a card with information on it is a great idea. Smile at a mama, say something like “In case you wanted to know” or “Please let me share this with you” and hand it to her. Put your name, email or phone on it in case she has follow up questions. I think that will usually be well-received, vs. someone approaching you and saying “You’re doing it all wrong.”


    • I realize it could be disconcerting, but that is probably part of our cultural path of “Every man is an island.” I want people to care…I think it’s in how you do it.

      If you sweetly said, “Ma’am, could I show you something? The buckle should actually go this way…it’s very important,” maybe it would go better. Maybe save the “harm/ dying” for after a respectful conversation OR when someone is blowing you off and you are hopeful that will get their attention.

      I understand the fear–of CPS involvement, of “stranger danger,” etc.–and how we approach people is important. Don’t get right in their faces in the car without calling out a greeting as you come up to them, etc.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Hi, I’m Kate.  I love medical freedom, sharing natural remedies, developing real food recipes, and gentle parenting. My goal is to teach you how to live your life free from Big Pharma, Big Food, and Big Government by learning about herbs, cooking, and sustainable practices.

I’m the author of Natural Remedies for Kids and the owner and lead herbalist at EarthleyI hope you’ll join me on the journey to a free and healthy life!

Meet My Family
Love our content? Sign up for our weekly newsletter and get our FREE Nourished Living Cookbook!