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Should you replace your child's seat after a car accident?

As a driver, car accidents are easily one of the most stressful situations you can experience, but even more so if you are a parent. The most important thing is always to make sure that you and your kids are okay, but the aftermath of an accident can be chaotic and stressful. If you've suffered an accident with a child young enough to need a safety seat, you may need to replace the seat before your child rides in the car again. Most seats will look and seem fine on the surface, without any breakage or damage. These seats are designed to absorb impact, so they might not show the immediate effects of the crash. However, most seats are designed to absorb one impact, meaning they might not be safe for your child in the future. This article will help you determine if your child’s safety seat is safe to continue using, with advice from experts in the field, and general guidelines from manufacturers. We'll go over what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says about replacing car seats, as well as the difference between major and minor car accidents. We'll also talk about whether or not seat replacements are covered by insurance, and what you should do with the old one once you get rid of it.

The child seat's durability can make it hard to know whether or not you should replace the car seat. While in some cases it's obvious - major damage or cracks, straps that are damaged or torn - minor accidents, like ones you walk away from, can make it harder to tell if you should replace the seat or not. Car accidents usually come with no end of expense and inconvenience, and reusing a seat, as long as it's safe, is one way to save money and time during this stressful period.

Car seat manufacturers will state in the manual what to do in case of a car accident. Most of them will tell you that it's in the best interest of your child’s safety to throw the seat away and buy a new one. We have a list of manufacturers who do not automatically say to reuse and their qualifications below. If you need to get rid of the seat, keep the manual, and scroll down. We'll be discussing how to dispose of the seat safely, as well as how to seek reimbursement from your insurance company for the cost of a new child seat.

According to The Car Seat Lady, the following manufacturers say you do not automatically have to dispose of your child's safety seat, depending on the severity of the accident:

  • Britax - Keep if minor
  • Combi - Keep if minor
  • Diono - Only for Cambria, Monterey and Santa Fe models, keep unless damage was severe
  • Fisher Price - Keep if minor
  • IMMI - Keep if minor
  • Kiddy - Keep if minor (it's important to note that Kiddy defines minor damage strictly as damage incurred while the car was traveling 10 mph or less. This is different from the rest of the models on this list, who define minor by the qualifications below)
  • Peg Perego - Keep if minor
  • Safe Traffic - Keep if minor
  • Sunshine Kids - Only for SantaFe or Monterey models, keep unless damage was severe.

For the models listed above, here are the NHTSA guidelines for minor damage, as well as some general guidelines for determining what the overall damage to your car might be:

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has recently changed its guidelines regarding child safety seats that have been in an accident. Previously, they've recommended that any child seat involved in an accident, no matter how small, be replaced. However, that's changed. NHTSA has reviewed multiple instances of crash tests, and they've realized that child seats that have been in accidents - including ones that have signs of strain or stress - will still stand up in the subsequent crash tests, continues to perform their intended function. The NHTSA also urges that no children are transported without a safety seat while their current one is being replaced or insurance claims are going through.

NHTSA's official policy for child seat replacements is, if the seat is involved in a minor accident, it does not automatically need to be replaced, as long as it still conforms to the criteria below. The NHTSA also decided that any seat involved in a moderate to major accident must be replaced to absolutely ensure any child's safety.

It's important to note that, even if your child was not in the car seat at the time, you should still evaluate the car seat's condition. No matter who was in the seat or around it, everything in your car will experience significant forces from the accident, especially since the seat will be secured to stop it from moving, like loose items are prone to do. While your water bottle might be fine, that's most likely because it was able to move with the forces acting on the car, which means that it had to absorb less overall force. Since the safety seat won't be able to move, it will absorb the entire force of the accident right on the points that secure it to the car. This is an important place to check when you look for visible damage, as we discuss down below.

In order to continue using your child seat, the accident must be minor, as classified by these five criteria provided by NHTSA:

  • Did you drive your car away from the accident?
  • Was the door closest to your child's car seat undamaged/not hit?
  • Was everyone in the car uninjured/able to walk away?
  • Were the airbags unused/un-deployed?
  • Is the child seat undamaged to the eye? Does it still look like it is in serviceable and good condition? Make sure to unbuckle the seat and check the bottom as well, see if the plastic looks like it's come under stress in any way. Also, make sure to check the straps and that the stitching that connects them to the rest of the seat, as well as ensuring all of the pieces are still attached and that nothing is broken.

If you can answer “yes” to all five of these questions, your child seat is able to be reused.

These are the qualifications for a minor accident. To further confirm your accident as minor, scroll down and see if those criteria better fit your experience.

Liberty Mutual defines minor damage similarly to the NHTSA: if the car can still be driven away, and any visible damage is limited to non-essential parts of the car. The damage needs to be easy to fix, such as small dents and minor scraping, or the parts need to be easy to replace, like your lights. This would be more for incidents like fender benders or hitting something in a parking lot. Basically, accidents at low speed and involving very little force should be classified as minor.

Moderate damage is classified by larger dents that spread to the body of the car. This would include damage to one of the doors, or the doors no longer being operational. Another indication of moderate damage is if the airbags have deployed. If the airbags in your car have deployed, your child's seat should be replaced, since the accident involved enough force to deploy the car's safety measures.

Severe damage is probably the most obvious of these criteria. Any damage to the axles or frame would be severe damage, since the structure of the car itself has been affected. From a parent's perspective, if the metal in your car has been changed by the accident forces, then the plastic of your kid's car seat is most likely stressed or damaged in some way. Severe damage is almost guaranteed if the car has rolled over, side-swiped, or pushed into an intersection or rail.

If you need to replace your child's car seat, contact your insurance agent and ask them how they'd like you to proceed with your claim, or if they will cover it. General guidelines suggest that, if the accident was the other party's fault, and if you have full coverage, then your company should cover your seat. For those of you who live in the state of California, the state requires your insurance company to replace the seat if it's damaged in any way.

Most insurance companies will require you to buy the seat and then submit the receipt to them for reimbursement. Most will not require you to purchase the exact same seat, so if your kiddo is due for an upgrade , this might be a good time to do so. It's also a good idea to clarify your specific company's requirements with your agent before you act, so that might be something to discuss with them when you make your initial claim.

Some companies might also want to see the specific instructions from the manufacturer, so be sure to keep the seat's manual, or see if you can find an online copy to submit to them. This documentation is something they might want for their own purposes, or they might want to be assured of the necessity of a new seat. Since the guidelines have changed recently, and not all seats have to be replaced after every accident, extra backup to your claim will do nothing but benefit you.

Once your insurance claim is finalized, it's time to get rid of the old car seat. Before you throw the damaged seat away, first see if there are any programs in your area to allow the seat to be recycled, or even reused for training purposes. When you get your new seat, if you're struggling with installation or just want the added peace of mind, going to see your local fire department is always something to consider. While you're there, you can ask them for specific recommendations or instructions on how to dispose of your seat, as well as if there are any recycling programs near you. The organization Safe Ride 4 Kids has a recycling drive every year , and many states will have an outreach program in the month of April to celebrate earth day. Also, you can always contact your local police station or government office to see if there are any community outreach programs that have to do with damaged or unsafe car seats.

If there's no good way to recycle or donate your used car seat, it's important to make sure that it can't be reused before you throw it away. Make sure to remove the straps and padding from the seat, and dispose of them separately, so as not to present temptation to someone who might be desperate for a seat. Some even recommend writing on the shell itself that it's damaged and not to use it. We wouldn’t want someone thinking your child has outgrown their seat or gotten a new one, and the old one is still safe to use.

We hope this helped explain what to do with a car seat after an accident. As always, our goal is to keep you safe.

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The information contained on these pages is for general information purposes only. The article is a summary presented for a brief informational overview. While we strive to keep the information up to date and correct, we make no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, about the completeness, accuracy, reliability, suitability or availability with respect to the website or the information, products, services, or related graphics contained on the website for any purpose. Any reliance you place on such information is therefore strictly at your own risk. For any additional questions or concerns about the topics in the article, speak with a NHTSA representative or a comparable state safety agency. For any additional questions or concerns about the equipment in your vehicle, speak with the equipment manufacturer.