Do I need to replace my car seat after an accident?

In the event of a moderate to severe accident: Yes

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Susan Meyer

Senior Editorial Manager

  • Licensed Insurance Agent — Property and Casualty

Susan is a licensed insurance agent and has worked as a writer and editor for over 10 years across a number of industries. She has worked at The Zebr…

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Ross Martin

Insurance Writer

  • 4+ years in the Insurance Industry

Ross joined The Zebra as a writer and researcher in 2019. He specializes in writing insurance content to help shoppers make informed decisions.

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Car seats: To replace or not to replace?

Car seats are a crucial safety feature for protecting children in vehicles, but many parents are unsure about what happens to a car seat during an accident and when they should replace them. Let's address common questions, concerns and more to help you ensure your child's safety on the road.

When should you replace a car seat after an accident?

Previously, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) guidelines were to replace a car seat or booster seat after any crash, regardless of severity. However, newer guidelines recommend replacing a car seat only after a moderate or severe crash.

What qualifies as moderate to severe? If any of the following are true, you should plan to replace your safety seat:

  • The vehicle was unable to be driven from the crash site.
  • The vehicle door nearest the safety seat was damaged.
  • Any of the vehicle occupants sustained any injuries.
  • The airbags deployed.
  • There is visible damage to the safety seat.[1]

If none of the above criteria is true, the NHTSA considers it a minor crash. That said, check the manufacturer’s recommendations because some car seat makers still recommend changing out your seat in the event of an accident regardless of accident severity.[2]

How do car seats work to protect kids?

Booster seats and car seats are designed to reduce injury to occupants too small to be adequately protected by seatbelts. They do so in the following ways:

  • Preventing ejection: Safety belts restrain the child to prevent them from being ejected from the vehicle in the event of a crash. Studies show that fatalities and injury rates are both much higher when people are ejected from the vehicle.[3]
  • Load force on the strongest parts of the body: Children’s bodies are different than adults who are strongest in hips and shoulders. For children, their backs are strongest. The five-point safety harness on car seats distributes the force of a crash across the child’s body more evenly. This is why it’s also important to follow recommendations on keeping car seats rear-facing based on age and weight of the child.
  • Protect head, neck and spine: Children’s bodies have bigger heads proportional to their bodies than adults. At birth, the head is one-fourth of the body length, while for an adult it is only one- seventh. This increased weight is more likely to be propelled forward in the event of a sudden impact. Secure harnesses and rear-facing car seats for as long as possible can prevent injury. 
  • Allow for gradual slow down: As mentioned above, ejection is seen to create greater chance of fatality and injury. This is partly true because of impact, but also because you are thrown from the vehicle at the speed you were going. However, if you remain in the vehicle, it is engineered to absorb the impact of the crash in a controlled manner. You can only reap the benefits of this if you are “part of the vehicle” which is only possible for children in a snug, properly-installed booster seat or car seat.  

It's incredibly important that your car seat is:

  1. Properly installed per the manufacturer's instructions for the weight and height of your child. 
  2. Not expired and in working condition. Damage to straps or gradual breakdown of the insulating material can mean a car seat or booster seat is no longer safe. This is why all car seats and booster seats have an expiration date. This is usually visible on the side or back of the seat. 
  3. Not damaged in an accident. (More on that below).

What happens to a car seat during an accident?

During a car accident, a car seat absorbs the impact and distributes the forces of the crash away from the child's body. Modern car seats are designed to deform and absorb energy, much like the crumple zones in cars, to reduce the impact on the child.

The exact impact on a car seat depends on the severity of the crash. In minor accidents, the damage may be minimal and not visible. However, in more severe crashes, the car seat may sustain significant damage, such as cracks or deformations, which can compromise its safety.

Will insurance cover the replacement of a car seat?

Insurance coverage for car seat replacement varies depending on your policy and the circumstances of the accident. In order for your insurance company to cover the replacement of a car seat, you will need to provide information about it when filing your claim. Usually the insurance provider will want to know the type of seat damaged accident and its original cost and will reimburse you for a replacement that matches the quality and type of the damaged one.

In some cases, the insurance company may require you to cut the straps of the car seat (and send photo evidence of having done so) to show that it cannot be reused or sold.

What to do with a car seat after an accident?

If your car seat or booster seat has been in a moderate to severe accident, you know it is no longer safe to use. To avoid anyone else using it, if you put it out in your trash or bulk pick up, make sure to cut the straps and leave a note that it is not a viable seat.

Some local recycling centers will take car seats, but this depends on the area. Search your local recycling center information to learn if this is possible and what the requirements are. You may need to cut off foam padding, straps and fabrics before recycling.

Finally, some retailers, including Target, offer trade-in programs. You can bring your damaged or expired car seat to one of their trade-in events and not only dispose of it, but also get a discount on buying a new car seat.[4]

Wrapping up

Car seats play a crucial role in protecting children in vehicles. But in order to do their job effectively they need to be replaced after a moderate or severe crash or when they reach their expiration date. Understanding these factors can help ensure your child's safety on the road.