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Pennsylvania Car Seat Laws and Keeping Your Child Safe

Posted on 09/28/23

For parents, child safety is sure to be a top priority. Unfortunately, it sometimes happens that children are not secure, especially when on the road. In fact, vehicle accidents are a leading cause of injury, and even death, in children.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 711 children aged 12 and under died in vehicle accidents in the United States in 2021, and 36% of these victims were not strapped into car seats at the time. So if you’re wondering, “Can a child be injured by their safety seat in a crash?”, know that they are more likely to be hurt if they’re not using one.

That’s why it’s so important to understand the law around child safety and car seats, as knowing and acting on Pennsylvania’s car seat laws could save your child’s life. In 2020, 83% of children aged under 4 in Pennsylvania who did not receive any injuries in a car accident were restrained in car seats at the time.

Not only should your child be restrained in a car seat, but the seat must be properly installed. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation recommends that you get your child’s car seat installed or inspected at a station, and it provides links to further instructions to help you.

In addition to car seat laws, children aged between 4 and 8 (or older if appropriate) must use a booster seat, and children between the ages of 8 and 18 must be secured in a vehicle with a seat belt.

If you fail to use a car seat as prescribed by the law, then you will be subject to a fine, so make sure you’re up to speed with everything you need to know about child car seats. Read on to find out more.

Pennsylvania’s Child Passenger Protection Act

It’s the law, as set out in Pennsylvania’s Child Passenger Protection Act, for children under the age of 8 to use car seats or booster seats in the back of the vehicle. In addition, the driver must ensure that children are securely fastened into one of these.

The law also says that the car seat must be appropriate for the child, so they can only use a car seat until they outgrow its maximum height and weight limitations.

Once your child gets to 8 years of age and is at least 57 inches tall and weighs at least 80 pounds, they can use a seat belt.

Your child should use a booster seat if they haven’t reached the required height and weight recommendations to use a seat belt alone.

As a parent or carer, it’s your responsibility to know about Pennsylvania’s child passenger protection laws. In brief, they state that:

  • Children younger than 4 years old must be buckled into an approved child passenger restraint system (a child safety seat), which is secured by a seat belt.
  • Children younger than 2 must be secured in a rear-facing car seat. This must not be used in the front seat, where there is an airbag.
  • Children aged 4 and over and under the age of 8 must use an approved booster seat secured by a seat belt.
  • Children aged 8 and over and under the age of 18 must use a seat belt.
  • The driver is responsible for ensuring that children under the age of 18 are buckled up in the vehicle.

You can explore Pennsylvania’s child passenger protection laws more fully here, where you will find further details about punishments for violating laws, as well as exceptions to the laws.

Understanding Pennsylvania’s Car Seat Laws

Perhaps the best way to describe Pennsylvania’s car seat laws is by referring to them as “child restraint laws” — that’s because as well as car seats, they cover booster seats and seat belts as well.

Let’s take a closer look at the four-tier system in operation in Pennsylvania:

  • Rear-facing car seats: Children under 2 years of age must sit in a rear-facing car seat. Once they reach 2 years or outgrow the seat’s height and weight recommendations, whichever milestone they hit first, they should switch to a forward-facing seat.
  • Forward-facing car seats: Children over the age of 2 but under the age of 4 who are no longer suitable for a rear-facing car seat must use a forward-facing seat. Ensure this seat has a five-point harness and can be secured to the vehicle.
  • Booster seats: Booster seats enable children to use a car’s seat belts safely, bringing them up to the required height. The booster seat enables the seat belt to sit as intended to secure the child’s shoulder and lap. Booster seats are required until a child turns 8.
  • Seat belts: Pennsylvania laws say that seat belts must be worn by passengers in a vehicle aged between 8 and 18, all passengers (of any age) in the front seat and drivers.

Exempted from these rules are travelers in cars manufactured before 1966 and people who have a health condition that prevents them from wearing a seat belt.

You can find out more about the exemptions, rules around seat belts, and what happens if these rules are broken in the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code Section 4581.

Penalties for Not Complying with Pennsylvania’s Car Seat Laws

The law takes child passenger protection seriously, and that’s why there are penalties in place for not complying with these regulations. If a child is not restrained — or not restrained adequately — in your vehicle, you can expect a series of fines.

The Child Passenger Protection Law is a primary law, which means a police officer can stop you and pull you over if they suspect you have broken it, without needing to find any other reason to do so.

You will get an initial fine of $75 if you are found to have violated the law. This is followed by another $45 in surcharges, a $10 Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Fund charge, and $10 in administrative fees and court costs (these costs may increase on an annual basis).

However, if you can provide evidence that you have indeed fixed your vehicle with a child passenger restraint system, either a car seat or booster seat, then the fines will be dismissed.

What You Need to Know About Booster Seats

If you have a child between the ages of 4 and 8 (or an older child who doesn’t make the height and weight requirements to use a car seat alone), booster seats can keep them safe and secure while traveling in your vehicle. These seats enable children to use seat belts safely, ensuring they are seated in a position where the seat belt fits correctly over their shoulder and across their lap.

Different types of booster seats

There are two different types of booster seat: high back booster seats and backless booster seats.

High back booster seats are good for vehicles that don’t have headrests, and they feature a low seat back. They give your child’s head extra support, which can be especially useful if they tend to fall asleep on car journeys.

Backless booster seats are a more compact and portable option and are usually more affordable too. If you choose a backless booster seat, your vehicle must feature a headrest or a seat-back that’s high enough to provide support to your child’s head when they are seated.

How to install and use booster seats

Booster seats are easy to install — all you have to do is simply place them on the seat in the rear of your vehicle. The weight of your child holds the seat in place, while the seat belt ensures they are secure.

The booster seat may display arrows or other guides to show you where you position the seat belt.

When you buckle your child into the seat, the seat belt must be flat on their shoulder and positioned low around their hip.

Make sure your child doesn’t slip the seat belt under their arm or behind their back. If they complain that their seat is uncomfortable, try a different type of booster seat with adjustable fittings.

When the booster seat is not in use, keep it secured with the seat belt so it doesn’t move around the car, creating a hazard.

Generally speaking, children should use a booster seat until the age of 8 or up to the age of 12 if they are of smaller build.

To know whether your child is ready for a seat belt, try these tests:

  • Make sure that their knees bend at the edge of the seat when their bottom and back are positioned against the back. Their feet should reach the floor comfortably.
  • The lap belt must be a snug fit across your child’s hips.
  • The shoulder portion of the seat belt should fit across your child’s chest and shoulder. It should not be in contact with the face or neck.

One of the best ways you can encourage your child to wear their seat belt correctly and willingly is to always wear a seat belt yourself. And don’t be tempted to let your child ride without a seat belt or appropriate restraint, even for short journeys. It’s not worth the risk.

Injured in a Car Accident in Pennsylvania?

Ensuring your child is suitably restrained while traveling, whether that’s by using a car seat, booster seat or seat belt, is the best way to prevent injury and even death.

Pennsylvania’s car seat laws are designed to keep children secure, so make sure you comply with them for safe traveling with your child and to avoid fines too.

And if your child has unfortunately been injured in a car crash in Pennsylvania, you don’t have to deal with the consequences alone. All you need to do is reach out to Tyler Wilk of Wilk Law, an experienced Philadelphia car accident lawyer who’s passionate about getting his clients the justice they deserve.

Tyler will talk you through where you stand when it comes to child passenger laws and liaise with insurance companies and courts to prepare your claim.

Your initial consultation is free, so there’s nothing to lose! Get in touch now to find out whether you could claim compensation, with the expert help of Tyler Wilk.