Car seat safety debate: Latest news says baby seats should face rear until age 2

Andrea McKellar straps son Grant, 21 months, into his car seat in 2011. File/Staff

South Carolina's car seat regulations were altered for the first time since 1983 when Gov. Henry McMaster signed a new law May 19, but the bill does not change how regulations are enforced. 

The change stems from a 2011 policy statement by the journal Pediatrics that recommends children be kept in rear-facing seats until they are 2. Previously, only children under 1 or weighing 20 pounds or less had to be in a rear-facing seat under state law. The new law increases the minimum age to 2. Parents also can legally move their child to the upgraded seat if they exceed the manufacturers' weight or height recommendations.

Violators can be fined $150, but newly signed legislation does not address how the car seat law will be enforced.

Katrin Bost, a Safe Kids associate with Children's Trust of South Carolina, said parents have a tendency to graduate their kids from car seats too early. Kids will complain about car seats, or they'll be teased at school for needing a booster, Bost said.

People also tend to take misguided recommendations from friends and family. But Bost said parents should know every time they change a car seat against recommendations, they jeopardize the safety of their child.

"With every promotion in seating, there's a demotion in safety," she said. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 46 percent of car and booster seats are used incorrectly.

A rear-facing car seat reduces the force put on a child's head and neck during a crash, Bost said. Studies have shown children are five times safer if they're rear facing, she said. The new law also increases the age — from 6 to 8 — at which a child can legally sit in the front passenger seat. 

Beth Bernstein, one of the bill's sponsors, said it was high time for South Carolina to update its car seat law. She said most enforcement of the law will happen at routine traffic stops. She also said most people won't need to buy a new seat for their child.

"It really doesn’t affect most people," she said "This is allowing you to keep the rear seat longer."

Bost suggests buying a convertible car seat, even for a newborn. Many have settings for small children, she said, and parents will be able to use them longer. 

Bost recommended an online car seat guide that will tell parents which car seats are best for their child.

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.