Most infant car seats expire six years from the date they were manufactured, although that timeframe can vary among manufacturers. Although not mandated by the U.S. government or any sort of federal law, expiration dates on car seats provide a threshold for parents to judge whether or not a car seat is still safe for their children to use. While some detractors of car seat expiration dates allege that companies that manufacture car seats are simply looking to sell more seats, there are actually some valid reasons that car seat expiration dates make sense.
Why Do Seats Expire?
Car seats that have reached their expiration dates should not be used. But why? That expensive car seat you’ve been lugging around in your back seat may have been the top of the line when you bought it, but things change. Various factors go into to determining if one seat “expires” prior to another. The materials used in the seat’s assembly, the design of the seat, the type of installation (rear or front-facing), and other factors come into play.
Some of the reasons that car seats expire include:
- The plastic used in car seats fatigues over time, which can lead to cracks that can cause seat failure.
- Parts wear and tear. Belts and buckles wear out, and after repeated fastening and unfastening, may not perform as they should or hold your child securely inside.
- Parts for older seats are hard to find. If the webbing or some other part of the car seat becomes torn or damaged, fixing the seat can be impossible if the parts are obsolete.
- Engineering improvements occur. Seats are continually being redesigned to keep children safer in the event of a crash. Older seats may not afford those same levels of protection. For instance, today’s most-modern car seats have safety features like spring-loaded protection against whiplash and side-impact protection. Car seats past their prime do not.
- Safety regulations change. New methods of buckling children into car seats and attaching seats inside the car can require the latest seats. For instance, in 1999 and again in 2002, these recommendations changed, and while the seats manufactured prior to those dates can still be legally used, manufacturers can no longer sell them.
Expiration Date Versus Manufactured Date
It is important to remember when buying a new car seat that there are two dates on your car seat’s expiration date—the expiration date and the date the seat was manufactured. As a general rule, the seat should be safe for your child to use for six years following the date of manufacture after you purchase the seat and put it into use, and even longer (up to 10 years) in the case of a booster seat. So, if you buy a seat in December of 2019 that was manufactured in November of 2018, then you have six years from December of 2019 to use the seat, despite any expiration date in effect.
Car Seats Involved in Car Accidents
One scenario that can result in an infant car seat being unfit for use prior to its expiration date is if it is involved in an accident. Even if the child was not in the seat during the crash, the performance of the seat can be compromised by the accident. The NHTSA recommends replacing seats that are involved in moderate or severe crashes. In minor crashes, the seat is considered safe for your child if the following are all true:
- The vehicle was in good enough shape following the crash to be driven from the crash site.
- The door nearest to the car seat was not damaged.
- No one in the vehicle was injured.
- There was no airbag deployment during the accident.
- The seat is not visibly damaged.
Should You Ever Buy a Used Car Seat?
Since expiration dates are now common with most car seat manufacturers, parents should feel safer buying used car seats for their kids, right? Not so, say experts on child safety. Even if a seat is within its expiration timeframe, there is no real way of knowing if the seat has been involved in a crash before. Although it is tempting to save money by picking up a used car seat at the local Goodwill or from someone on Craigslist, experts say to always buy your child’s car seat new, since it is better to be safe than sorry if you cannot be assured of the seat’s crash history.
Where Do You Find a Seat’s Expiration Date?
To find the expiration date for any particular car seat, look for the expiration date tag on the seat itself. It is usually imprinted in plastic on the bottom of the seat or somewhere on the seat’s shell, or it may be on a mailing-label-sized tag or sticker found elsewhere on the car seat. The language used on the expiration tag may vary; some may say “Expiration date” while others may simply say “Do not use after” followed by the date of expiration.
The sticker will include both the expiration date and the date that the seat was manufactured along with any other safety info that the manufacturer chose to include. Because manufacturers differ in the recommended time for discarded used car seats, be sure to read the user’s manual that comes with the seat to determine exactly how long your seat is good for past its manufacture date. For example, Cosco recommends tossing out its car seats after seven years, not the standard six.
Summing It Up
The bottom line is that while manufacturers stand to make a few more bucks by putting expiration dates on car seats, these dates are not without merit. Technology surrounding child safety and car seats is always evolving; consider that there are 80 percent fewer infants killed in car crashes now as opposed to 1975 when there were virtually no car seats in place, and you can easily see how it pays to stay on the cusp of new recommendations to keep your little one safe. Car seat expiration dates can help you determine if a seat is past its usefulness and possibly not the safest option available.