Your child is your most precious cargo.
Car seats save lives, and it’s important to know car seat laws wherever you live.
Here at Murphy Law Firm, several of us are parents and grandparents, too. We get it — car seats can be annoying. They’re heavy, cumbersome, tricky to install correctly, and your kid might hate them. “Car seat Twister” is no joke — climbing over and under your passenger area, trying to get that tight latch or rear tether fastened. But it’s a necessary part of life for a parent or caregiver.
No one loves buckling a kicking and screaming child tightly into a car seat. But using the correct seat for your child’s age and size helps protect your baby from harm and keeps you safe from violating Montana car seat laws.
Sobering car crash statistics
If you doubt the importance of knowing how to properly use a kid’s car seat, these statistics might make you think twice:
- Motor vehicle accidents are among the top causes of death for children ages 1-14 in Montana.
- Statistics show that 3 out of 4 children in the U.S. are less safe than they could be because their car seats weren’t used or installed correctly.
- A child safety seat used properly can reduce the risk of fatality by nearly 71%.
Montana car seat laws
Montana law requires that any child under 6 years old and who weighs less than 60 pounds must travel in an approved child safety seat in the car. The seat must be appropriate for the child’s height and weight according to the manufacturer’s guidelines.
4 types of child safety restraints
There are 4 ways to provide safe seating for your child in the car. It’s important to choose a restraint system based on your child’s age and size. Each seat will have height and weight guidelines from the manufacturer.
It’s also important to look at how a particular seat fits in your vehicle because the frame of some seats is larger than others, and it’s crucial that whatever child seat you have fits snugly and securely into your car’s seat.
|General car seat guidelines based on age and size|
|Age/weight range||Recommended car seat|
|Birth to 12 months, or 20 pounds||Rear-facing infant seat or convertible rear-facing seat|
|12 months or 20 pounds, to 4 years or 40 pounds||Toddler car seat or convertible seat|
|4 years or 40 pounds, to 8 years or 80 pounds||Booster seat with lap and shoulder belt system|
|Children over 4’9” tall||Lap and shoulder belt system in the back seat of the vehicle|
1. Rear-facing car seat
A rear-facing seat could be infant-only or convertible, which means you could continue to use it as your infant grows into a larger baby or toddler. This seat comes with a 5-point harness and is designed to cradle and move with your baby to lessen the impact in a crash.
Some rear-facing seats are “bucket-style,” where a parent can take the top part of the seat in and out of the car to carry a baby without removing the baby from the seat. These seats click into a base that remains installed in the car. A convertible seat would stay fastened in the car and the parent unbuckles the baby and takes them out each time they leave the car.
2. Forward-facing car seat
Recommendations about when to turn your child forward-facing have changed dramatically in recent years.
Not long ago, the recommendation was to turn a child forward-facing around a year old. Now, updated recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics say that children should be rear-facing until at least age 2, but ideally longer.
There are lots of options for rear-facing seats that can accommodate a child who weighs 40 pounds or more, which means that your child can safely ride rear-facing possibly until age 4 or 5. If possible, keep your child rear-facing until they outgrow the maximum weight guideline from the seat manufacturer.
A forward-facing car seat has a 5-point harness and rear tether in order to position your child and limit forward movement in a crash.
3. Booster seat
A booster seat is designed for an older child and is primarily intended to be a belt-positioner so that the shoulder belt lies correctly across the child’s shoulders and not across the neck.
A booster seat is appropriate for a child who weighs at least 40 pounds and is between 2’11” and 4’9” tall. A booster seat doesn’t have its own harness; the child would sit on the seat and use the car’s regular safety belt.
There are some other considerations before moving your child into a booster seat. It’s not about just height and weight — a child needs to be mature and responsible enough to sit upright and properly for the entire time in the car, even if they fall asleep. Some car seat safety experts recommend that your child is at least 5 years old before they start a booster, regardless of size.
There are two types of booster seats: high-back boosters and backless boosters. The recommendation is for a child to start off in a high-back booster because it includes a belt positioning guide, the head rest can usually be adjusted to your child’s height, and it provides some side cushioning for the head in a crash. Also, because there’s structure around your child’s body, it helps to train your child how to sit upright and correctly while wearing a seatbelt.
A high-back booster is also safer (and more comfortable) for your child to rest their head on the sides if they fall asleep so that they can rest without slumping forward.
An older child who can sit properly and doesn’t sleep in the car is ready to “graduate” to a backless booster seat.
4. Seat belt
Once your child is more than 4’9” and can sit up straight, they’re ready to sit in the car’s regular seat using a seat belt. This might not happen until your child is 11 or 12 years old.
There’s a five-step test to determine whether your child is ready:
- They can sit all the way back and their knees bend at the edge of the seat.
- Their feet are on the floor.
- The shoulder belt fits across the collarbone (not the neck) and is flush on the torso.
- The lap belt is low on the hips and sits on the tops of the thighs.
- The child can handle sitting this way for the entire travel time.
Remember, the seats and belts in a passenger car are designed to hold an average-sized adult male. The longer you can keep your child in each restraint system, the better. Unless their height or weight exceeds the maximum specified by the car seat manufacturer, they’re not “too big” and will be safer in the child seat than sitting on a regular seat as an adult passenger would.
Children should ride in the backseat of a car until at least 13 years old.
Using the LATCH system
The LATCH system stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. You might have seen those little metal square hooks sticking out between the back and bottom of your rear passenger seats — that’s what they’re for!
Vehicles manufactured after September 2002 are required by law to include LATCH attachments in most back seats. Your child’s safety seat is equipped with belts that are specially designed to clip on to the LATCH attachments in the car. This is the most secure and simple way to fasten a safety seat into the vehicle.
If you can’t use the LATCH attachments for some reason, your child safety seat manual gives instructions for how to attach the seat using the vehicle’s seat belt and car seat tether.
Penalties for violating Montana car seat laws
If you violate Montana’s car seat law (properly restraining a child), you can be fined up to $100.
If you violate Montana’s seat belt law, which requires that all drivers must be secured with a properly fastened seat belt, you can be fined up to $20.
Resources for car seat safety
We know this is a lot to digest, especially for new parents. Montana has several resources on its Child Passenger Safety page where you can find information about choosing and installing car seats.
Here are some tips for using car seats correctly:
- It’s important to note the expiration date on your child’s car seat. Most seats expire 6 years after they were manufactured. There’s usually a sticker on the bottom or side of the seat that has the manufacture date. If you can’t find it, call the manufacturer for assistance.
Why does a car seat expire? The hard plastic in the shell of your car seat can break down and degrade over time. That makes it more brittle, which means that it could shatter in a crash. Even the metal parts on the inside of the seat (which you can’t see) can build rust over time and become less likely to function properly in a collision… when you need them most.
- Always register your child safety seat with the manufacturer immediately after purchase. Because safety standards are always evolving, and also because things do go wrong, there are frequent recalls on child safety seats. If your seat is registered and has your current contact information on file, the manufacturer will let you know right away if there is a recall or recommended modification to your seat.
- You should never use a car seat after it’s been in a collision. A child safety seat can be damaged in a collision in ways you can’t see. Even if the seat is empty when the collision occurs, manufacturers recommend replacing it. It might look fine, but the plastic could have hairline fractures that leave it more vulnerable if there’s a second collision.
The takeaway for parents on car seat safety
It’s generally not a good idea to use a secondhand or hand-me-down car seat. If you’re going to use a secondhand seat, check the expiration date to make sure it’s still good. If that part is fine, you still need to know for sure that the seat was never in a collision. Make sure that you trust the person’s word that the seat hasn’t been damaged.
Remember this, too… a lot of new parents feel sticker shock when they shop for baby’s first car seat. Yes, they can be expensive! But keep one thing in mind — every seat on the market needs to pass certain federal regulations and undergo crash testing in order to be sold.
The more expensive seat might have a few more “bells and whistles” like convenience and comfort features (does your infant really need a slide-out cup holder?), but it’s not likely going to keep your child any safer on the road. Purchase the seat your budget can handle and remember that the most important thing is to have a seat that’s the right size for your child and is installed properly in the vehicle.
When you purchase a car seat, read the instruction manual carefully. Most car seat manufacturers also offer YouTube videos to demonstrate the installation process and the proper way to buckle your child.
There are also professionals who are trained to correctly check and install child safety seats. There might be periodic car seat safety check events in your community. If not, call your local police department to find a car seat inspector.
What if you’re in an accident?
Accidents happen every day.
Hopefully, your child safety seat did exactly what it was designed to, and your sweet little one is safe and sound. But if you ever need legal assistance following a Montana car accident, we’re here to help.
Our team of experienced lawyers and staff bring expertise, knowledge, and compassion to your personal injury case. Contact us today.