Car Seat Replacement After a Car Crash

Crash Test Dummies
Flickr/Benjamin Allen

Car seats do a phenomenal job of protecting babies and toddlers during vehicle crashes. What you should do with the car seat after the crash depends on the severity of the crash. An older recommendation was to always replace car seats after a crash, no matter how minor.

This recommendation has changed and the car seat may not need to be replaced after a minor crash. However, note that car seat manufacturers are ultimately responsible for their products. If the manufacturer says to replace a seat after any crash, follow that rule.

NHTSA Car Seat Re-Use Recommendations

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) offers recommendations on when to replace children's car seats and booster seats after car crashes. Replacement is needed for any moderate to severe crash, but not for minor crashes. But if your child's car seat manufacturer says to replace the seat after any crash (even a minor one), you should comply. If you have questions, call the manufacturer directly to discuss them.

These are the five criteria which must be met for a crash to be considered minor:

  • You were able to drive the vehicle away from the crash site. If the vehicle needed to be towed from the scene of the crash, the car seat should be replaced.
  • The vehicle door closest to the car seat was not damaged. If your vehicle has a third row of seats and the car seat was installed there, the closest door is in the second row, or a back door.
  • No one in the vehicle was injured in any way.
  • None of the airbags in the vehicle deployed. This includes front airbags, side curtain airbags, seat belt airbags, seat side airbags, and knee bolster airbags.
  • There is no visible damage to the car seat. There are no cracks, creases, stretched webbing, broken top tether stitching, stress marks, or broken pieces.

If your vehicle and car seats don't meet all five criteria, the car seats should be replaced.

It does not matter whether a child was riding in the car seat at the time of the crash. Even an empty car seat that was buckled into the vehicle will experience crash forces. The force of the car seat moving forward and being held back by the lower anchor strap or tether strap can cause damage that may be invisible, but might keep the car seat from doing its job if you're in another crash.

If you have more than one car seat in your vehicle, one may need to be replaced after a crash, while the other does not. For example, if the door closest to one car seat was damaged, but the door closest to the other car seat was not, then only one car seat would need to be replaced as long as the other criteria were all met.

Manufacturer Instructions for Using a Car Seat After a Crash

Some car seat manufacturers state in the user instruction manual that their car seats should be replaced after any crash, no matter how minor. Graco, for example, states that their car seats must be replaced after any crash. A user manual for the Graco Snug Ride Classic Connect 35 infant car seat says, "Replace the infant restraint and base after a crash of any kind. A crash can cause damage to the infant restraint that you may not be able to see." It doesn't matter if the crash was minor. In order to properly use a car seat, you must follow manufacturer instructions.

The manufacturer's instructions take precedence over other agency suggestions, so take a look at the manual before deciding whether or not to use a car seat after a crash.

Britax, another car seat manufacturer, tells customers to use the five NHTSA criteria shown above. Many other car seat manufacturers use this method to determine whether or not you should use a car seat after a crash. Read the manual to find out what is required by the manufacturer of your baby's car seat.

Following the manufacturer's instructions is important not only for safety but for warranty purposes. If the manufacturer says to replace the car seat after a crash, and it is not replaced, any further warranty related work may not be covered if it becomes necessary. Misuse generally voids the manufacturer's warranty.

Car Seat Inspections After a Crash

It's a common erroneous belief that you can take a car seat to the fire station or police department to have it certified as safe after a crash. Crash damage is not always visible to the naked eye. No one can inspect your car seat and certify it as safe after a crash.

Replacing Car Seats

After a moderate to severe crash, replace the car seat with a new model. Talk to your insurance company about reimbursement for car seats. In at least one state (California), insurance companies are required by law to pay for the cost of a new car seat. Since safe car seats are required in all states, insurance companies should pay the entire cost of a new car seat. Some companies may try to pro-rate the cost of a car seat based on the age of the damaged seat. Pro-rated compensation is unacceptable, though, since it is not safe to purchase an older, used car seat for your baby.

One reason the NHTSA recommendation was changed was due to concern about the expense of replacement. Parents might not be able to afford a new car seat and instead, buy a used car seat. There is no way to know whether a used car seat had been in a similar or more severe crash, so there would be no gain in safety. Some parents might decide not to replace the car seat, but the child might not yet be old enough and large enough for the regular seat belts to provide protection. Be sure to check what protection is right for your child.

A Word From Verywell

In general, a car seat is meant to be a one-time use product. That means it's designed to protect your child through one crash. Once it has done its job, be sure to use the manufacturer's instructions to determine whether or not it's safe enough to potentially withstand another crash and keep your little one well-protected.

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