“When I was a kid, they didn’t have these fancy car seats and we were fine.”
If you’re a parent that’s passionate about car seat safety, you’ve probably heard this from a family member or friend. Or you might have actually said this yourself at some point! And, it’s true, car seats are very different now than they were back then.
Believing new car seats are unnecessary for safety because you were never killed in a car accident is called survivor’s bias. It’s a fact that children are now safer than ever in collisions. And, when a child is properly buckled into a modern car seat, their risk of injury in a crash is reduced by up to 82%!
So, yes, it is important to follow all car seat safety guidelines and set firm boundaries. It could save your child’s life! But, since we’re on the topic, how did car seats get to where they are today? How did we get to such an effective model and process for keeping kids safe in the car?
Below, we’ll walk you through the history of car seats and how we stepped into the modern era of ultra-safe vehicles and child restraint systems:
History of Car Seats
Bunny Bear Booster Seat (1933)
Bunny Bear Company was the first to develop a car seat in 1933. It was more of a booster seat made of metal and leather. It sat in the front seats and had a simple belt to restrain the child. However, this seat was not for crash safety—it was simply to help parents keep a better eye on their children during a time when it was normal for kids to climb around the vehicle freely. It also helped give the kids a better view out the windshield!
Canvas and Metal Frame Boosters (1940s)
In the 1940s, a booster that took up less space and provided more comfort was invented. This version was metal and canvas, and it hooked over the front seat. The canvas seat looked like a toddler playground swing with a high back. These, again, were just to help parents contain and hold the child, and they provided no safety benefits.
The Jeenay Car Seat (1962)
In 1962 Jean Ames, who was a British journalist, made the first car seat actually intended for safety. She introduced the idea that car seats should only be in the back seats and rear-facing. It was the first seat that used the vehicle’s seatbelt and had its own 3-point harness system too.
A few years later, she released an updated version with her patented 5-point harness system similar to the ones we use today! This car seat also doubled as a high chair and had a comfortable foam pad, which was a huge selling point and encouraged more parents to try a child safety restraint system.
Guys and Dolls Safety Car Seat (1963)
Around this same time, the co-owner of “Guys and Dolls Furniture Company and Toy Store” Leonard Rivkin was in a car accident where his child flew from the back seat into the front seat and onto the floor at his wife’s feet. His son thankfully was okay, but it inspired Rivkin to research car seat safety and develop his own seat.
He used the new 5-point harness system, but he was paving a new industry in the United States, where The Jeenay car seat hadn’t yet caught on. He patented his version of the car seat which was steel-framed and rear-facing. It also used the vehicle’s safety belt for installation like the British version.
Swedish Rear-Facing Car Seat (1964)
At this point in the mid-60s, it was becoming clear that rear-facing was the best way for a child to ride. A Swedish professor named Beril Aldmann watched a documentary on the Gemini space capsule and noticed how all the astronauts were rear-facing in the spacecraft.
He designed his own rear-facing seat and developed the T-standard, which is a strict set of guidelines that keeps kids rear-facing until at least 4 years old. This standard is still used in Sweden to this day!
Tot-Guard and Love Seat (1968)
Finally, in the late 1960s, vehicle manufacturers got on board and developed their own seats. These were some of the first seats with true crash protection engineering. The Ford Tot-Guard was an unusual shell that would sit over the child while riding and “shield” their upper body during a crash —you won’t see any seats like this 2023! However, the General Motors Love Seat was a rear-facing only car seat with similar qualities to infant car seats on the market now.
The Bobby Mac (1970s)
The Bobby Mac car seats of the 1970s produced the first convertible car seats. These could be rear- or forward-facing. Some include 3-point harnesses and some 5-point, and many had a fold-down shell feature that restrained and shielded the occupant’s torso, similar to the Tot Guard. The seat belt would sit across this shell to keep the baby safely secured in their car seat during the ride.
Safe Installation Requirement (1971)
In 1971, America saw its first car seat standards and requirements. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration mandated that all car seats were installed with the car seat’s safety belt. It was actually just a few years earlier, in 1968, that seat belts became standard in vehicles at all! This was the very first step of well-regulated car seat safety as we know it today.
Crash Testing (1980s)
Though car seat safety was finally reaching public and government attention, there were still a few things missing. Before 1981, there was no strict crash testing standard — there was no way to prove that the car seats being developed were safe and effective! The original law laying out safe installation requirements was updated in the early 1980s, creating the earliest crash testing protocols and standards that car seat manufacturers were required to meet.
Car Seat Laws (1985)
With federally required crash testing came statewide car seat laws! By 1985, all states had laws that required children to ride with a car seat. This was a great start, but research found only 80% of children were in a restraint system, and for those that were 65% of them were using their car seats incorrectly. Many families didn’t yet see the importance of car seats as safety devices, and some were slow to adapt to changing standards. Change is hard, but in this case, change was very, very good!
Locking Seatbelt Requirement (1996)
Have you ever gone to install your child’s car seat in Grandpa’s old Jeep, only to realize the seatbelt doesn’t lock? Before 1996, vehicle seatbelts didn’t have pre-crash locking mechanisms! This made car seat installation much more difficult, so beginning in 1996, all US vehicles had to have seatbelts that can be manually locked in order to allow for easier car seat installation. Today, most vehicle seatbelts lock by slowly pulling the shoulder belt all the way out, then letting the extra slack retract back in — this is called locking at the retractor. Some vehicles still use locking latch plates, which mean that the lap belt portion of the belt is locked at the seatbelt buckle (or latch plate) while the shoulder belt can still move freely. Both of these are safe for car seat installation!
Car Seat Safety Technicians (1997)
The National Highway Traffic Safety Association sees the obvious gaps in car seat education, leading to lots of misuse. To help with this, they launched their child passenger safety technician training program that equipped people to educate about and check car seats for people in their communities. Today, you can even meet with a car seat technician online.
ISOFIX was the first vehicle anchor system for car seats. It was meant to make the installation process easier, so more children would be safe in their seats. This has since evolved into the LATCH system, though you may still see the name ISOFIX used in vehicle manuals or in reference to European car seats!
LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren, and it is the modern anchor system in all US passenger vehicles. (In Canada, it’s called UAS, or Universal Anchorage System.) The lower anchor system allows you to quickly and safely install a car seat rear-facing, and when you move forward-facing, the top tether attaches to the back LATCH anchor. These systems are required in every vehicle.
Here’s a fun fact: LATCH was introduced at a time when the harnessed car seats only went up to 40lbs, and it was designed to more or less replace seatbelt installation as an easy and universal car seat installation method. But in the following years, car seat manufacturers began to introduce car seats with higher weight limits. Soon, engineers began to consider how much force the LATCH structure could hold up in a crash. After lots of debate and testing, in 2013, a standard weight limit was applied to LATCH installations: 65lbs, including both the child and the car seat. Fortunately, car seat manufacturers provide the child’s maximum weight for lower anchor install, no math required! Once your child reaches their seat’s LATCH weight limit, you’ll reinstall their car seat with the seatbelt method (and the top tether, if they’re forward facing!).
Booster Seat Laws (2002)
In 2002, California was the first state to pass a law regarding booster seats. The law ensures all children below 40 lbs remain in some sort of child safety restraint system. Since then, all states have some sort of safety restraint law for older kids up to age 5-8. This was a big step in keeping our older kids safe, though we know most kids don’t pass the 5-step test to ditch their booster until age 10-12!
Here’s the 5-step test that will help you determine when your child is ready for this next step:
Your child must be able to put their back and bum flush against the back of the vehicle seat. Not only must they be able to do this, they also need to be comfortable doing it for a long period of time. (Like, the entire car ride.)
While your child’s back is against the seat, can they bend their knees at the edge of the seat and rest their feet flat on the floor? Your kid’s legs must be able to hang perpendicular over the seat without having to slouch or stretch. So those legs need to be long enough for steps one and two to happen together!
The lap belt must be pulled tightly across your child’s hips, touching their thighs — not riding up on their belly.
Next, check the shoulder belt. It should be positioned between the neck and shoulder. Additionally, it needs to lay flat on your child’s body. Watch out for a seat belt hugging too close to the ear or face! It must in contact with the center of your child’s shoulder. Some vehicles have an adjustment feature that allows you to ensure the seat belt fits properly. Check your manual for this function!
The seat belt only functions properly when the passenger is sitting correctly. If your child likes to lean over or lay down or stretch out of the shoulder belt, they might not be ready to move out of a booster. In fact, they should still be in a high back booster if they are not yet able to maintain the proper position.
When your child can pass this 5-step test and they reach the appropriate age requirements, they can start riding in the front. Although it’s a good idea to check your state laws on child passenger safety too. Usually, a child can’t pass all these criteria and sit in a seat in the front until they’re 12 years old. And, even then, remember that your child is safest in the back seats of your car!
Regular Advancements (2010s)
There have been several safety advancements through the 2010s and 2020s. Parents are being more picky and meticulous about what car seats they purchase as they’re better educated on car seat safety. Companies have responded by offering a ton of additional safety features beyond what the government demands. You can learn more about those HERE.
Can You Use Old Car Seats?
Of course, you can’t use a car seat from the 60s, but there are plenty of car seats still floating around resale sites from the 90s and early 2000s. These are unsafe to use for two reasons: One, there have been too many safety advancements and law updates since the car seat was manufactured. You need the most up-to-date models.
Two, car seat parts wear down over time. That’s why every car seat has an expiration date, which you can learn more about HERE. If you come upon a newer used car seat, use this article to determine if it’s safe to use.
Every year car seat advancements make our children safer on the road!
Car seats are one of the most important pieces of gear that we buy for our children. The streets are dangerous, with car accidents being a leading cause of accidental deaths in children. However, car seat safety advancements have cut the annual death rate in half. So, keep your child safe by learning all about proper car seat usage.
If you’re looking for a great place to educate yourself on car seats, look no further than Safe in the Seat! We have car seat courses and available online consultations with a certified car seat tech. Beyond those services, we have a helpful blog and Instagram full of free information. Browse these resources and keep your child safe in their seat.