By Autumn Cafiero Giusti
Parents put a lot of thought into choosing a child safety seat for their vehicles. But they don’t always put the same amount of thought into what to do with that seat after a car crash.
Some drivers don’t realize that not only are they supposed to replace their child safety seat in the event of a crash, but that many insurance companies will cover the cost of replacing the seat. That goes for booster seats as well as infant and toddler safety seats.
“The car seat is considered part of the car, for insurance purposes,” says insurance agent Bill Montgomery, CIC, who owns Insurance Works for You in Dayton, Ohio, and has been featured as an industry expert on InsureBlog.com.
To warrant coverage in most cases, Montgomery says the seat needs to meet the criteria from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
How to define a 'minor' car crash
The NHTSA recommends replacing a child safety seat that has been involved in a moderate to severe crash. However the administration recently revised its position to state that modern child safety seats are sufficiently durable and don’t need to be automatically replaced after a minor crash. The NHTSA dictates that a crash is considered minor if it meets all five of the following criteria:
• There is no visible damage to the car seat that might have been caused by the crash.
• The vehicle was capable of being driven from the crash site.
• The car door nearest to the child restraint was undamaged.
• No one in the vehicle was injured in the crash.
• The air bags did not deploy.
Registered nurse Donna Laake, injury prevention coordinator for Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, says the hospital follows those guidelines when determining whether a crash was severe enough to warrant replacing a child safety seat.
“If none of those five things happen, you’re probably in a little bit of a gray area, so we recommend you call the manufacturer,” says Laake, who teaches car seat classes and works with children and their families who need car seats for discharge from the hospital..
By regulations, all car seats must carry a sticker that lists the seat’s date of manufacture and model number, along with the manufacturer’s name, address and phone number.
However even in the event of a fender bender, some manufacturers prefer to err on the side of caution.
“Our policy is that if you’ve been in a crash, you should discard the seat,” says Eric Dahle, director of engineering for Evenflo, a manufacturer of car seats and other products for babies and children.
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Part of the reason for this policy, Dahle says, is that it’s difficult to evaluate the reliability of a child safety seat without seeing it in person. “We have a hard time recommending that anyone use anything after it’s been in an accident,” he says.
Even though a seat might not need to be replaced after a minor accident, experts say careful inspection is still necessary. Damages to a safety seat can be invisible to the naked eye. There could be hairline fractures in the plastic, or the plastic is molded in a color like black that conceals stress marks. Or there could be stress place on the seatbelt or harness straps. “It’s just like a seatbelt in a motor vehicle crash. Most of the time you’re going to have to replace that seatbelt because it has been stretched and locked in place,” says Trooper First Class Melissa Matey of the Louisiana State Police. Matey helps oversee child safety seat inspections for LSP.
And just because a child wasn’t in the seat at the time of the crash doesn’t mean the seat won’t need to be replaced.
“Replacement after a crash does not differentiate between occupied and unoccupied,” says Sarah Tilton, child passenger safety advocacy manager for child safety seat manufacturer Britax.
Laake says the amount of force on the car seat in that crash determines whether the seat was damaged, and the weight of a child will only add to that.
“People don’t fully understand how bad crash forces are,” she says. “If you take the weight of a person or car seat and multiply that by your speed, that’s the force you will experience in a car crash. If a seat weighs 10 pounds and you’re going 50 mph, you’re getting 500 pounds of crash force on that seat.”
Will my insurance pay to replace a car seat?
Although not all insurance policies pay for seat replacement, Laake says that most of the people she has checked back with after a crash said they were approved for coverage.
Experts say there are a few steps you can take to increase the odds of your insurer covering your seat replacement.
If you’re preparing to have a baby, check with your insurer to find out if child safety seat replacement is covered in your policy. “When you’re pregnant, whether or not your insurance is going to cover your car seat is probably not on your mind. Unfortunately, I think most people find this out only after they have had a crash,” Laake says.
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Insurers are also more likely to cover car seats when there is written documentation of the severity of the crash, or of the manufacturer’s advice to replace.
Matey says that it helps to notify the investigating officer at the scene of the crash.
“As long as that person involved in the crash lets the trooper or officer know there’s a car seat in the vehicle at the time of the crash, they can make a note in the crash report and then it can be determined by the insurance company as to whether they would replace it,” she says.
And if an insurance company declines the replacement, Tilton recommends asking the insurer for a letter stating that they assume liability for the child riding in the car seat that they refused to replace. “It has worked every time I know it has been used,” Tilton says.