If you’re a parent or child caretaker living in California, and you need to brush up on your California car seat laws, this post is for you.
They have rules about different situations including:
- Exceptions for children with special needs.
- Using car seats on public transportation.
It’s important to be aware of them so you don’t accidentally get fined for not following them. We’ll cover changes to the California car seat law, including rules about using child safety seats on different modes of transportation, the changes made this year, and answer some frequently asked questions about the laws.
Recent Car Seat Law Changes
As of January 1, parents need to buckle children under 8 years old or who are less than 4’9” tall or weigh less than 40 pounds in a car seat or booster seat and ride in the back.
They had no such law previously. They only required children to ride in rear-facing car seats until the age of 2. In addition, children 8 years of age or older who aren’t tall enough for the seat belt to fit right need to ride in a booster or car seat.
These changes are important and will impact over 1 million children in California. Keeping them in booster seats longer increases the odds that they will survive a crash by 45%.
Public Transportation Car Seat And Seat Belt Requirements
According to SB20, all passengers in commercial buses need to wear a seat belt or risk having to pay a $20 fine for the first offense, and $50 for each additional offense. If a child under 8 years old or 4 feet 9 inches tall is riding with the adult, they’re responsible for making sure the child has proper restraints.
“Acceptably restrained” means they’ve fastened the latch plate comfortably to the buckle, the lap belt fits low and tight around the hips or upper thighs instead of the stomach, adjusted the belt snugly across the chest and middle of the shoulder so it doesn’t touch the neck, and is not placed behind the back or under the arm.
The parent, legal guardian, or chartering party need to make sure passengers 8-16 years old are wearing seatbelts. They’re also responsible for passengers under 8 years old and 4 feet 9 inches tall unless they’re wearing a seatbelt according to SB20.
This doesn’t apply if they’re leaving their seat to use the bathroom on the bus. If you can’t make sure a child under 4 feet 9 inches and 8 years old is restrained because of their size, they need to be in a child restraint system that passes the NHSTA’s crash test ratings and has appropriate padding around their head if they weigh under 22 pounds.
Be sure to check for labels on the car seat that verify it meets these standards.
California has no specific rules about using car seats on trains. However, Amtrak trains do have rear-facing seats, so you can always seat yourself and your children in those seats to reduce the risk of injury.
Uber requires children who need a car seat to be secured in one. Parents can bring their own car seat if they choose to. Uber has car seat services available in some cities; however, they are not yet available in California. If you know you’ll be using Uber frequently, consider buying an affordable portable car seat.
California law requires children to ride in car seats even in taxis; however, they don’t have to provide car seats. Just like with Uber, if you know you’ll be riding in taxis frequently, consider buying an affordable portable car seat to use.
Many rental car agencies offer car seats; however there’s no guarantee they’ll have an appropriate car seat for your child, so it’s best to bring your own.
Children With Special Needs
Children with special needs can have problems sitting in regular car seats. Luckily, you can ensure your child stays secured it. These include using car seats with harness systems or using an attachment like the E-Z On zipper vest.
They are designed for kids who need additional restraint – parents don’t have to worry that the child will unbuckle the harness.
Cerebral palsy is a group of problems that affect a child’s ability to maintain good balance and posture. The symptoms vary from one person to another, but can include:
- Variations in muscle tone
- Stiff muscles and exaggerated reflexes.
- Stiff muscles with normal reflexes
- No muscle coordination
- Tremors or involuntary movements
- Difficulty walking
It’s especially beneficial for them to ride rear-facing because if they’re in a crash, it spreads forces from it over the back of the car seat and the child’s back. This lowers the risk of spinal cord injuries.
Children With Down’s Syndrome
Children with Down’s Syndrome have a full or partial extra copy of the 21st chromosome. Their muscle tone may be poor or their joints may be loose, and the first and second vertebrae in some children with Down’s Syndrome moves easily.
Most features of Down’s Syndrome are physical features, but those who have low muscle tone may benefit from using a rear-facing car seat.
There are some other considerations to look at with children with Down’s Syndrome.
- Some children with Down Syndrome need heart surgery. If your child has Down Syndrome and had heart surgery, and you’re concerned about car seat straps placing too much pressure on their chest, look for a different car seat.
- In instances when your child slumps, add crotch rolls to prevent it.
- If they need more support on the side, consider adding foam rolls. You can also add soft padding on either side of the head. However, don’t add padding behind or under the child in the seat.
- If your child has a tracheotomy, don’t use car seats that have a tray or shield.
Children With A Spica Cast
Some children may need a special cast called a Spica cast if they have certain conditions:
- Developmental dyspepsia of the hip
- Unstable hips from cerebral palsy
- A traumatic injury that caused a femur fracture
It may cover both legs or part of one leg. The surgeon may tell you the width, and how much it will bend at the knee. Children in spica casts usually fit in regular car seats.
If your child doesn’t fit in a regular car seat with their spica cast, consider purchasing a convertible seat that has lower sides or a wider front.
Children With Autism, ADHD Or Cognitive Problems
Children with Autism or ADHD have social problems and may have a hard time staying still. The key features of Autism and ADD include:
- Problems interacting with others
- A strange interest in objects
- A need to follow the same routine
- Great diversity in abilities
- Under or over-reaction to one of the five senses.
- Repeated actions or body movements
- Unusual emotional reactions and expressions
Autistic children who have repeated actions may have trouble sitting still in a car seat. They may need special restraints such as harness systems or travel vests so they don’t distract the driver.
Children With A Feeding Tube
A child may need a feeding tube because:
- Their mouth or esophagus is abnormal
- They have difficulty swallowing or keeping food down.
- They don’t get enough nutrition or fluids orally
Conditions that can cause them to have trouble eating include cerebral palsy and motor neuron disease. Feeding tubes can cause additional challenges with riding in a car seat.
If your child has a feeding tube, make sure the car seat doesn’t rub against it. When choosing one, consider the location of the feeding tube and whether it bulges above the skin.
When choosing a car seat for a child with a feeding tube, you’ll need an emergency plan to replace the tube in case it comes out.
Children with hydrocephalus have a lot of cerebra spinal fluid built up. This may cause them to have an unusually large head.
If this is the case, a rear-facing car seat that can tolerate a higher weight may help them. Also, consider choosing a car seat that has more head area or a forward facing seat that can be semi-reclined.
Children With A Special Medical Condition
Children with certain special medical conditions may need a special child restraint called a car bed. These conditions include:
- Osteogenesis Imperfecta
- Pierre Robin Sequence
If your child was premature and can’t travel at a 45-degree angle and breathe normally, they may also need a car bed. The neonatologist or nurse practitioner will tell you if your child needs this before you leave.
If your child is premature but passed the angle tolerance test in the NICU, but is still less than 5 pounds, they may be able to ride in a car seat that’s made for smaller babies.
Frequently Asked Questions About California Car Seat Laws
Who is covered by the law?
The law covers children 16 years of age or younger.
What’s the age and weight limit for a child restraint?
Children need to wear a child restraint until they’re 8 years old or 4 feet 9 inches tall. Read the guide on when can a child seat in the front seat in CA.
When does a child need to ride in the back seat?
Children need to ride in the back seat until they’re at least 8 years old.
The only time they don’t have to ride in the back seat is if there’s no forward-facing rear seat in the vehicle, if you can’t install a child restraint in the rear seat, if there are children 7 years of age or younger sitting in all the rear seats, if the child can’t ride in the back seat for medical reasons, or if it might be dangerous to ride in the back seat, like if it’s broken or loose, or if it has a broken seat belt.
What is a booster seat and when can a child legally use one?
A booster seat is a solid cushion that positions the lap and shoulder belt correctly on the child. It may or may not have a backrest.
They can fit children who weigh from 30 to 40 pounds to 80-125 pounds, depending on the model.
When is it legal for a child to wear a safety belt?
Although children 8 years of age or older don’t have to ride in a booster seat, the law requires that they use seat belts properly. Most children aren’t tall enough for seat belts to fit correctly without a booster until they’re 10-12 years old.
What are examples of improper use of safety belts?
Examples of improper use include:
- wearing them on the shoulder belt under the arm, or behind the back.
- wearing the lap belt on the stomach instead of the upper thighs.
Which vehicles are exempt from the law?
California law doesn’t require adults to wear safety belts in antique or vintage cars; manufacturers made them before the law required seat belts. However, children still need to ride in a safety seat in antique or vintage cars.
What are the penalties for violating the new laws?
For each child under 16 years old who falls under the height and weight limits and isn’t secured correctly, the parents, or the person driving the car, can receive a ticket for more than $475 and receive a violation point on their driving record.
Can the officer waive the penalty?
They may waive the penalty for the first offense if the defendant can prove an economic disadvantage.
What can parents do if they believe they can’t afford to buy a safety seat?
Most counties in California have programs that help people buy inexpensive safety seats. If the parent explains their situation to the officer, they can provide the number of a local group that might help.
When does a child fit in an adult seat?
A child fits in an adult seat when:
- They can sit against the vehicle seat back and bend their knees without slouching, and stay in this position for the entire trip.
- The lap belt fits low on the hips and touches the upper thighs
- The shoulder harness crosses the chest but not the face or neck.
Don’t let your child put the shoulder harness behind their arm or back. If they’re in a crash, they could end up with major injuries, including injuries to their head or spinal cord.
If they’re putting the shoulder belt behind them, they still need a booster seat.
How do I transport a child in a pickup truck that has no back seat, and a front passenger’s seat that has an airbag?
If they need to ride in a car seat in the front passenger’s seat of a pickup truck, disable the airbag when the child is in the truck to prevent it from accidentally going off if you’re in an accident.
How do I get a letter of medical necessity if my child has special needs?
First, you must get a prescription from the specialist that treats your child for their special needs so a physical therapist or occupational therapist can test them for an adaptive child restraint.
The therapist will test your child and provide the letter or have you write it. Then, you and the therapist will select a vendor to buy the car seat from.
What information do I need to include if I have to write a letter of medical necessity?
If you have to write a letter of medical necessity, give your child’s name, age, and medical condition. Explain why they need a special child restraint and the danger they present to themselves and others if they don’t have it.
Also, explain how the restraint will help them and others stay safe in the car and that they won’t be able to ride in the car safely without it under California law. Include the date and insurance information so the insurance company can reimburse you if they determine the special restraint is medically necessary.
Do car seats expire?
Yes. You can find the expiration date on the label on the side or bottom of the car seat. Car seats expire 6 years after they’re made. If your child outgrows the car seat before then, be sure to replace it right away.
This is everything you need to know about California car seat laws, the recent changes and who they affect, and answers to frequently asked questions.
These laws are important because they will keep children safe until they’re old enough to fit in a regular seat belt. Be sure to follow them. If you have additional questions, contact your doctor, or the California Highway Patrol.
If they can’t answer the questions, they can refer you to an agency that can.