Guide: Overview of car seat laws in all 50 states

Chris Teague

Chris Teague

car seat laws

If you’re a new parent or anyone who has ever installed a car seat, you may be wondering about the laws in your state and how you’re required to strap your child into a car. The good news is that car seats and vehicles are safer than they’ve ever been, so your child has a better chance of staying safe, even if you’re confused about the law. It’s possible to drive in some places without a seatbelt, but there are no such exemptions for kids.

Skip to table of car seat laws

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Car seat laws may be different everywhere, but no matter where you live, your kids are required to ride in a car seat, full stop. There are no states, not even “live free or die” New Hampshire, that allow kids to ride unrestrained. States have different laws and guidelines, so some places require that kids under a certain age ride in the back seat, if available. Others have no such specifications in their laws. Fines and other penalties vary wildly as well.



Types of car seats

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there are three main types of car seats.

Forward-facing car seat

Forward-facing seats have a harness to secure your child, and can come in a few different configurations. Convertible seats can change from rear-facing to forward-facing as your child grows, while combination seats feature a forward-facing design that converts to a booster seat as the child reaches a certain age. All-in-one seats offer all three configurations.

Rear-facing seat

Rear-facing seats are best for young children, and can help prevent injury in an accident by cradling your child. Many rear-facing seats offer a detachable carrier so parents can remove the child and seat from the vehicle and quickly snap them in when leaving. Rear-facing seats also come in convertible and all-in-one configurations.

Booster seat

Once your child reaches a certain height and weight, they can use a booster seat instead of a front- or rear-facing car seat. Boosters come with or without backs and use the vehicle’s seatbelts to restrain the child rather than straps. It’s possible to find boosters that offer convertible functionality, but for most kids, the seat is the last stop before transitioning to riding in the car as adults do.

car seat laws

Common Car Seat Terms

Adjustable base or foot

You will sometimes hear a car seat base called a foot, but the concept is the same. For many seats, the base installs in the vehicle and stays there. The seat clips into the base and is secured into the car. Many bases offer adjustable angles to accommodate different vehicle interiors.

Aftermarket products

Aftermarket products or parts are components not produced by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM). This can be extra cushions, covers, pillows, and products you buy and add to the car seats. In most cases, installing parts that did not come with the car seat is not recommended, as it can negatively impact the operation of the car seat.

Backless booster seat

Once your child grows to a certain point, you can use a backless booster seat. This means that there is only a bottom seat portion and the child’s back rests on the vehicle seat. These types of seats should only be used when your child is tall and heavy enough for the car seatbelt to rest on their shoulders and lap safely.

Buckle

Buckles can refer to the car’s seatbelt or to the restraint straps. Most rear- and front-facing car seats feature a three-point buckle that incorporates the shoulder and between-leg straps.

car seat laws

Car bed

In some cases, children with special health needs may have to ride lying down. For those children, car beds let them ride when they can’t use traditional seats. They are not always as safe or supportive as car seats with robust straps and restraints, so car beds should only be used when absolutely necessary.

Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) certifies technicians that have completed its car seat training program. Once certified, the tech can teach families how to install and use their new car seats.

Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS)

FMVSS are the rules that car seat and automotive manufacturers must follow when designing new products. There are FMVSS regulations relating to several vehicle systems, from air brakes to car seats and more.

Harness

Harnesses are the straps that hold your child in their car seats. The seat likely has multiple harness slots and an adjuster that lets parents get the proper fit.

Inspections

Most regions hold occasional car seat installation clinics where certified technicians help new parents and others learn the proper way to install car seats. These events are sometimes held at fire stations or car dealerships and give parents a stress-free environment to learn the correct way to install child seats.

LATCH

Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, or LATCH, are anchor points for car seats in vehicles. Rather than use the seatbelt to secure the seat, LATCH points connect directly to the seat with straps and allow tight, secure installation. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) rates new vehicles on their LATCH systems and the ease with which a car seat can be installed. If there’s too much seat padding or the anchors are buried too deep in the seat, the IIHS may give it a lower score in safety tests.

Recalls

Like vehicle manufacturers, car seat companies sometimes recall products that have been deemed defective or likely to malfunction in some way. If this happens, car seat companies issue press releases and make announcements to alert owners to the issue. You should not ignore recalls, as they could involve a vital component of car seat safety. The fix or replacement is completely free.

Seat belt fit test

When you think your child is ready to graduate from a car seat to ride in the regular vehicle seat, you’ll need to make sure the seat fits and aligns with their body. We’ll cover the car seat belt fit test later.

Top tether

Vehicles, especially SUVs and trucks, have a third tether location to anchor car seats into the back seat. In SUVs, the third location is typically on the back of the second-row seats, but in pickup trucks, it may be in the back wall of the cab itself.

Seatbelt fit test

As your child grows, they’ll start bugging you to move from a booster seat to a regular car seat at some point. Before you can make the transition safely, you’ll have to answer five questions about how they fit into the seat:

  • Does your child’s back reach the vehicle seat back?
  • Do your child’s knees bend at the edge of the seat?
  • Does the lap belt rest on the tops of their thighs instead of up on their belly?
  • Does the shoulder belt rest between the neck and shoulder?
  • Can your child comfortably sit properly without slouching or twisting the seatbelt?

If you can confidently answer all five questions, it may be time to transition to riding without a booster. For most kids, this transition can safely happen between ten and 12 years old, but smaller children may need a little more time. Your job as a parent is to ensure your child is safe, so while they may complain about riding in a booster, they’ll be much safer riding with one until they’re big enough.

Car seat expiration date

Believe it or not, car seats expire. This means the plastics and materials used in the restraints may not provide the same protection after a certain date. Most significant brands’ seats last for up to six years, but you won’t get any indication that it’s expired other than to observe the dates listed on the seat’s tag. Some components could become brittle and crack or stretch beyond a safe point after a certain age. For this reason, it’s essential to monitor the age of your car seat, especially if you’re using a second-hand seat.

Frequently asked questions about car seats and car seat laws

When can I transition my child to a booster seat?

The age and weight will depend on the type of seat you have, but generally, your child needs to be at least five years old and 40 pounds. If your child is small or immature for their age, the transition time should be flexible, and you may need to switch back to a front-facing seat if the child isn’t ready.

Can a car seat work in a single-cab truck?

Laws are different depending on the state, but it’s generally legal to install a car seat in a single-cab truck. The difference is that you’ll need to be able to turn off the airbag for whichever seat the child seat is installed. Check your local laws and car seat directions for proper installation and use.

What is the best age for a booster seat?

Children five years old and up are great candidates for booster seats. As the child approaches ten years old, you can check their height and weight to ensure they’re ready to transition beyond the booster.

Which cars fit three car seats?

There are plenty of new vehicles that can fit three seats across. A few include:

  • Dodge Charger
  • Toyota RAV4
  • Honda CR-V
  • Mazda CX-5
  • Nissan Rogue
  • Hyundai Ioniq 5
  • Subaru Forester

car seat laws

Are minivans best for parents?

Minivans are popular with parents because they’re comfortable, massively spacious vehicles with flexible seating. That said, many SUVs offer the same comfort and most of the same space with a better driving experience and more attractive styling. They’re fantastic family vehicles if you’re not opposed to them. Minivans are great when you need to haul many people and tons of gear, and the newest models are downright luxurious with high-end finishes and great tech.

Car seat laws in all 50 states

(Courtesy of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration)

State Must be in child safety seat Adult belt permissible Maximum base fine 1st offense, additional fees may apply Preference for rear seat
AL younger than 1 or less than 20 pounds in a rear-facing child restraint; 1 through 4 years or 20 – 40 pounds in a forward-facing child restraint; 5 but not yet 6 in a booster seat $25 law states no preference for rear seat
AK younger than 1 or less than 20 pounds in a rear-facing child restraint; 1 through 3 years and more than 20 pounds in a child restraint, 4 through 15 years who are either shorter than 57 inches or who weigh more than 20 but less than 65 pounds in a booster 4 through 7 years who are at least 57 inches or 65+ pounds; 7 through 15 who are shorter than 57 inches or weigh less than 65 pounds $50 law states no preference for rear seat
AZ 4 years and younger; children 5 through 7 who are 57 inches or shorter 5 through 7 who are taller than 57 inches $50 law states no preference for rear seat
AR 5 years and younger and less than 60 pounds 6 through 14 years or 60+ pounds $100 law states no preference for rear seat
CA younger than 2 years and less than 40 pounds and less than 40 inches in a rear-facing infant seat; 7 years and younger who are less than 57 inches must be in an appropriate child passenger restraint systemFootnote 2 8 through 15 years or at least 57 inches $100 children 7 years and younger who are less than 57 inches must be in the rear seatFootnote 2
CO younger than 1 year and less than 20 pounds in a rear-facing child restraint; 1 through 3 years and 20-40 pounds in a child restraint; 4 through 7 years in a booster seat 8 through 15 years $81 1 year and younger and less than 20 pounds must be in the rear seat if available
CT younger than 2 years or less than 30 pounds in a rear-facing child restraint; 2-4 years or between 30-40 pounds in a forward or rear-facing child restraint; 5-7 years or between 40-60 pounds in a forward or rear-facing child restraint or a booster seat secured with a lap and shoulder belt 8 through 15 years and 60+ pounds $50 law states no preference for rear seat
DE 7 years and younger and less than 66 poundsFootnote 4 8 through 15 years or 66+ poundsFootnote 4 $25 children 11 years and younger and 65 inches or less must be in rear seat if passenger airbag is activeFootnote 4
DC younger than 2 years must be in a rear-facing child restraint unless the child weighs 40 or more pounds or is 40 or more inches tall; 3 years and younger in a child restraint; 4 years through 7 years must be in a child restraint or booster seat 8 through 15 years $75 law states no preference for rear seat
FL 5 years and younger not permissibleFootnote 6 $60 law states no preference for rear seat
GA 7 years and younger and 57 inches or lessFootnote 8 more than 57 inches $50 7 years and younger must be in rear seat if available
HI younger than 2 years in a rear-facing child restraint; 2 through 3 years in a forward or rear-facing child restraint; 4 through 6 years in a passenger restraint system with harness or booster seat; 7 through 9, who are shorter than four feet and nine inches in height, in a passenger restraint system with harness or booster seat 7 through 9 years who are taller than 4 feet and 9 inches $100 law states no preference for rear seat
ID 6 years and younger not permissible $79 law states no preference for rear seat
IL younger than 2 years must be in a rear-facing child restraint unless the child weighs 40 or more pounds or is 40 or more inches tall; 7 years and younger 8 through 15 years; children who weigh more than 40 pounds seated in the rear where only a lap belt is available $75 law states no preference for rear seat
IN 7 years and younger 8 through 15 years $25 law states no preference for rear seat
IA younger than 1 year and less than 20 pounds in a rear-facing child restraint; 1 through 5 years in a child restraint or a booster seat 6 through 17 years $25 law states no preference for rear seat
KS all children 3 and younger must be in a child restraint; children 4 through 7 who weigh less than 80 pounds and children 4 through 7 who are less than 57 inches tall must be in a child restraint or booster seat all children 8 through 13 years; children 4 through 7 years who weigh more than 80 pounds, and children 4 through 7 years who are taller than 57 inches $60 law states no preference for rear seat
KY 40 inches or less in a child restraint; 7 and younger who are between 40 and 57 inches tall in a booster seat taller than 57 inches $50 child restraint; $30 booster seat law states no preference for rear seat
LA younger than 2 years and until reaching the weight or height limit as set by the manufacturer must be in a rear-facing system; at least 2 through 3 years and until reaching the weight or height limit as set by the manufacturer must be in a forward-facing restraint; at least 4 years through 8 years or until reaching the weight or height limit as set by the manufacturer must be in a booster 9 through 17 years; children who have outgrown the height or weight limits of the child booster seat as set by the manufacturer $100 12 and younger must be in the rear seat if available
ME younger than 2 years, or until exceeding manufacturer’s recommended weight or height limit, in a rear-facing restraint system; 2 years and older and less than 55 pounds in a child restraint system with an internal harness in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions; children less than 80 pounds who are shorter than 57 inches and less than 8 years in a booster 17 and younger who are taller than 57 inches or heavier than 80 pounds $50 11 years and younger and less than 100 pounds must be in rear seat if available
MD younger than 2 years in a rear-facing child safety seat until the child reaches the weight or height limit specified by the manufacturer; 7 years and younger and less than 57 inches 8 through 15 years; children who are at least 57 inches $50 law states no preference for rear seat
MA 7 years and younger and less than 57 inches 8 through 12 years; children who are at least 57 inches tall $25 law states no preference for rear seat
MI 7 years and younger and less than 57 inches 8 through 15 years; children who are at least 57 inches tall $10 3 years and younger must be in the rear seat if available
MN 7 years and younger and less than 57 inches not permissible $50 law states no preference for rear seat
MS 3 years and younger must be in a child restraint; 4 through 6 years and either less than 57 inches or less than 65 pounds must be in a booster seat 6 years and younger who either weigh 65 pounds or more or who are 57 inches or taller $25 law states no preference for rear seat
MO all children who are 3 years and younger and all children who weigh less than 40 pounds must be in a child restraint; 4 through 7 years who weigh at least 40 pounds but less than 80 pounds and who are 4’9″ or shorter must be in either a child restraint or booster seat; children 4 years and older who weigh at least 80 pounds or who are at least 4 feet and 9 inches tall must be in either a booster seat or safety belt all children 8 through 16 years; all children 4 years and older who weigh 80 pounds or more or who are taller than 4’9″ $50; $10 for violations involving children taller than 4’9″ or who weigh 80 pounds or more law states no preference for rear seat
MT 5 years and younger and less than 60 pounds not permissible $100 law states no preference for rear seat
NE younger than 2 years in a rear-facing child restraint or until the child outgrows the maximum allowable height or weight as prescribed by the manufacturer; 7 years and younger in a child safety seat 8 through 17 years $25 children 7 and younger must be in rear seat if available
NV younger than 2 years in a rear-facing child restraint; 5 years and younger and less than 57 inches in a child restraint system not permissible $500 children 2 years and younger must be in a rear seat if available; front seat permissible only with written physician certification and a deactivated passenger airbag
NH 6 years and younger who are less than 57 inches 7 through 17 years; younger than 7 who are at least 57 inches tall $50 law states no preference for rear seat
NJ younger than 2 years and less than 30 pounds in a rear-facing infant seat; younger than 4 years and less than 40 pounds in a rear-facing child safety seat until a child outgrows the manufacturer’s top height or weight recommendations or in a forward-facing child safety seat; younger than 8 years and less than 57 inches in a forward-facing child safety seat until a child outgrows the manufacturer’s top height or weight recommendations or booster seat not permissible $75 children 7 years and younger and less than 57 inches must be in the rear seat if available, no child shall be secured in a rear facing infant seat in a front seat of any motor vehicle which is equipped with a passenger-side airbag that is not disabled
NM younger than 1 year in a rear-facing child restraint; 1 through 4 years or less than 40 pounds in a child restraint; 5 through 6 or less than 60 pounds in a booster seat 7 through 17 years $25 children younger than one year in a rear-facing child restraint must be in the rear seat if available
NY younger than 2 years or until a child outgrows the manufacturer’s top height or weight recommendations in a rear-facing child restraint; younger than 4 years unless they weigh more than 40 pounds and are seated where there is no available lap/shoulder belt; 4 through 7 years unless they are seated where there is no available lap/shoulder belt 8 through 15 years; children who weigh more than 40 pounds or children 4 through 7 years in a seating position where there is no available lap/shoulder belt $100 law states no preference for rear seat
NC 7 years and younger and less than 80 pounds 8 through 15 years + children 40-80 pounds in seats without shoulder belts $25 children 4 years and younger who weigh less than 40 pounds must be in the rear seat unless the front passenger airbag is deactivated or the restraint is designed for use with airbags
ND 7 years and younger and less than 57 inches 8 through 17 years; 7 years and younger and at least 57 inches $25 law states no preference for rear seat
OH 3 years and younger or less than 40 pounds in child restraint; 4 through 7 years who weigh 40 pounds or more and who are shorter than 57 inches in a child restraint or booster seat 8 through 14 years $75 law states no preference for rear seat
OK younger than 2 years or until a child outgrows the manufacturer’s top height or weight recommendations in a rear-facing child restraint; younger than 4 years in a child restraint; 4 through 7 years, if not taller than 4 feet 9 inches, in a child restraint or booster seat 8 years; children who are taller than 4 feet 9 inches $50 law states no preference for rear seat
OR younger than 2 years must be in a rear facing child restraint; 7 or younger: 40 pounds or less must be in a child restraint; more than 40 pounds but 4 feet and 9 inches or less must be in a booster seat taller than 4 feet and 9 inches; 8 through 15 $115 law states no preference for rear seat
PA younger than 2 years in a rear facing child restraint until a child outgrows the manufacturer’s top height or weight recommendations; 2 through 3 years in a forward-facing child safety seat; 4 through 7 years in a booster seat 8 through 17 years in all seats $75 law states no preference for rear seat
RI younger than 2 years or less than 30 pounds must be in a rear-facing child restraint; 7 years and younger and less than 57 inches and less than 80 pounds 7 years and younger who either weigh 80 pounds or more or who are at least 57 inches tall; 8 through 17 $85 children 7 and younger must be in rear seat if available
SC younger than 2 years in rear-facing child restraint until exceeding manufacturer height/weight limit; children younger than 2 who outgrow rear-facing system and children 2 and older must be in forward-facing restraint with harness until exceeding manufacturer height/weight limit; children 4 and older who outgrow forward-facing child restraint must be in belt positioning booster using lap/shoulder belts until child is at least 8 years or at least 57 inches 8 years or at least 57 inches tall if (1) lap belt fits across hips and thighs, not abdomen (2) shoulder belt crosses center of chest and not neck (3) knees bend over seat edge when sitting up straight with his/her back firmly against seat back $150 7 years and younger must be in the rear seat if available
SD 4 years and younger and less than 40 pounds 5 through 17 years; all children 40+ pounds, regardless of age $25 law states no preference for rear seat
TN younger than 1 year or 20 pounds or less in a rear-facing child restraint; 1 through 3 years and 20+ pounds in a forward-facing child restraint; 4 through 8 years and less than 4’9″ in a booster seat 9 through 15 years or any child 12 or younger who is 4’9″ or taller $50 children 8 years and younger and less than 4’9″ must be in rear seat if available; rear seat recommended for children 9 through 12
TX 7 years and younger and less than 57 inches not permissible $25 minimum; maximum unlisted law states no preference for rear seat
UT 7 years and younger and shorter than 57 inches 8 through 15 years; all children 57 inches or taller $45 law states no preference for rear seat
VT younger than 1 year or less than 20 pounds in a rear-facing child restraint; 1 through 7 and more than 20 pounds in a child restraint or booster seat 8 through 17 years and more than 20 pounds $25 children 1 year and younger or less than 20 pounds must be in the rear seat unless the front passenger airbag is deactivated
VA younger than 2 years in a rear-facing child restraint or until the child reaches the minimum weight limit for a forward-facing child safety seat as prescribed by the manufacturer; 7 years and younger in a child safety seat 8 through 17 years $50 children in rear-facing devices must be in a rear seat if available; if not available, they may be placed in front only if front passenger airbag is deactivated
WA younger than 2 years must be in a rear-facing system until the child reaches the weight or height limit as set by the manufacturer; younger than 4 who are not required to be rear-facing must be properly secured in a child restraint system that is forward-facing and has a harness until the child reaches the set weight or height limits; older than 4 and shorter than four feet nine inches must be in a booster seat all children who are taller than 4’9” and younger than 16; 4 and older if in a seating position where there is only a lap belt available $124 12 years and younger must be in rear seat if practical
WV 7 years and younger and less than 4’9″ 7 years and younger and 4’9″ or taller $20 law states no preference for rear seat
WI children younger than 1 and all children who weigh less than 20 pounds are required to be in a rear-facing child restraint; children 1 through 3 years who weigh at least 20 pounds but less than 40 pounds are required to be in a rear-facing or a forward-facing child restraint; children 4 through 7 who both weigh at least 40 pounds but less than 80 pounds and who are less than 57 inches tall are required to be in a forward-facing child restraint or booster seat 8 years and younger and more than 80 pounds and 57 inches or taller $75 children 3 and younger must be in a rear seat, if available
WY 8 years and younger not permissible $50 children 8 years and younger must be in the rear seat if available

 

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