Car accidents are a leading cause of child death in the U.S. but car seat use has a significant impact on child passenger safety. Since 1975, child passenger restraints have saved an estimated 11,606 child lives, reducing the risk of fatal injuries in infants by 71% and by 54% for toddlers. According to the CDC, car seat use reduces the risk of child death in car accidents by up to 82% more than seat belts alone.
Like all states, New Jersey has a set of specific laws for child car seat use for minors. The state bases these laws on recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
New Jersey’s Child Car Seat Requirements
Children in car seats must ride in the back seat of the car in New Jersey whenever a vehicle has a back seat. New Jersey’s car seat laws for minors are as follows:
- All children under age two and weighing less than 30 pounds must be in a rear-facing car seat with a five-point harness
- All children under the age of four and 40 pounds must be secured in a rear-facing car seat until they exceed the weight limit of the rear-facing seat, after which they must be secured in a forward-facing car seat with a five-point harness
- Children under the age of eight and a height of 57 inches must ride restrained in the above-described car seats until they exceed the limits, after which they require a child booster seat (booster seats properly position the vehicle’s seat belt)
- Children age 8 and older with heights of 57 inches or above must be secured in a seat belt
Although New Jersey state laws don’t specify at what age a child over eight years old may lawfully ride in the front passenger seat, the CDC recommendation states that children under the age of 12 should ride in the back seat.
Infants, toddlers, and young children may legally ride in the front passenger seat of trucks or sports cars without a backseat but the front passenger airbag must be disabled for children to ride safely. The force of an airbag deployment may cause serious injury to small children in both forward and rear-facing car seats.
Don’t Skip the Booster Seat
Data from NHTSA shows that many parents skip the child booster seat requirement and prematurely move children from car seats to seat belts. As many as 16.6% of children between ages four and seven were moved from car seats to seat belts without transitional booster seats when not yet large enough for the seat belts to fit correctly. A car’s lap belt should fit across the child’s lap and not across the stomach. Shoulder belts should fit snugly across the child’s shoulder and not against the neck or face. A booster seat lifts a small child into a more favorable position for a vehicle’s seat belts to fit properly.
Is My Child Safe in Only a Seat Belt?
Many parents worry about their child taking the final step toward the milestone of riding without a car seat or booster. If a child is over the age of eight, New Jersey law no longer compels them to ride in a child booster seat, but if they are under 57 inches tall, they may still ride in one to maximize safety.
If you are unsure if your child over age 8 is ready to transition out of a booster seat, you can perform the following test: Have the child sit back against the backrest in the back seat. If the bend of their knees is at the seat edge and they can place their feet flat on the floor then the seatbelt should fit them in the correct position to maximize their safety in a collision. Correctly positioned shoulder and lap seatbelts should rest across the shoulder or collarbone with the lap belt across the child’s hips or lap rather than the stomach.
If a child isn’t old enough or mature enough to maintain the correct posture and position in a seatbelt and begins to slouch or stretch out while wearing a seat belt, they should continue to ride in a size-appropriate car seat or booster.
The NHTSA also warns parents that back seat sizes may differ between vehicle makes and models. It’s important to test a child’s fit in a seat belt when transitioning to a new or different vehicle. Children may still require a booster seat in some vehicles while they’re able to have a good fit with seat belts alone in others.
Common Mistakes With Car Seats in New Jersey
During the NHTSA’s Child Passenger Safety Week in September, the organization warned that their data reveals that 46% of child car seats are incorrectly installed, despite the majority of parents believing they’ve installed them correctly. These data show some improvement since the 2017 study which indicated that as many as 59% of car seats were incorrectly installed.
New Jersey residents with infants and young children should locate a child car seat technician in their area to inspect their child’s car seat and make corrections to installation errors. Common car seat mistakes include the following:
- Failure to read or follow the car seat’s manufacturer’s instructions
- Car seats too loosely installed
- Failure to use the top tether included in forward-facing car seats in addition to the lower anchors or seat belt attachment
- Leaving too much slack in the child’s five-point safety harness
- Transitioning children to the next car seat stage before they are old enough or large enough
- Failing to seek a professional car seat inspection for installation of older child car seats such as forward-facing car seats and boosters
- Failing to properly secure a child’s car seat when moving it from one vehicle to another
Failing to properly install and rigidly adhere to using child safety restraint systems appropriately increases the risk of child injury or death in New Jersey car accidents. In the event of a car accident, contact the Cherry Hill car accident attorneys at Cuneo & Leonetti to help evaluate your case circumstances.
Fines and Penalties for Child Restraint Violations in New Jersey
New Jersey parents face fines for child car seat violations, including for placing children in forward-facing car seats before age two or when weighing less than 30 pounds. Parents in violation of the state’s car seat laws face fines of up to $75.00 under the state’s updated laws.