Why Do Car Seats Expire?

Craig Cole
by Craig Cole

This may come as a shock to some drivers, though hopefully NOT ones with kids. Believe it or not children’s car seats actually have expiration dates, though not because they’re made of dairy products or tuna salad.

Just like that tub of sour cream buried in the back of your fridge, the one that’s lived through four power outages and gone undiscovered for the better part of a year, child seats go bad. “Most or all car-seat manufacturers have an expiration date,” said Chad Sparling, director of engineering for Recaro Child Safety. Typically they’re printed on a label or molded into the plastic on the bottom of the seat he said.

The lifespan for child seats typically ranges between six and 10 years. Simple boosters will generally last for a decade while more complicated units designed for infants and babies are rated for less time.

Curiously these expiration dates are not required. “The government does not mandate but they recommend six years,” Sparling said. Car-seat manufacturers are really the ones pushing expiration dates. Naturally this boosts sales but their motivation for it is not without merit.

There are actually a several reasons why seats expire, not the least of which is that engineering improvements and safety regulations are always changing. “Basically you want to make sure you’ve got the latest and greatest when you’re using it for your child,” Sparling said.

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Beyond the relentless pace of innovation baby boosters just wear out plain and simple. “Most car seats are made from plastic, which works very well,” he said.

But over time, this material can fatigue and start to crack, severely hampering the seat’s ability to protect your child in an accident. Depending on the climate, “It can see a really cold day and it can see a really hot day … The same seat is used in both instances.” This can accelerate plastic’s degradation.

And extreme temperatures aren’t the only things car seats have to deal with. Sparling said if you’re using the seat every day with numerous installations or constantly driving over rough terrain this can cause issues as well. With heavy-duty use you may want to replace your child’s car seat more frequently.

Seats should also be discarded if they’ve ever been in a crash, even a minor one. Sparling said, “NHTSA allows you to [re]use a seat if the vehicle can be driven away from the accident,” though he does not recommend this.

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But what about used car seats, is it ok to put your child in one? Not surprisingly Sparling said, “The answer to that is no.” You do not want to purchase a second-hand seat because you have no idea whether it’s been handled improperly or in an accident, so avoid that screaming deal at your local Salvation Army. It may save you some money but is it really worth the risk?

What to Look for in a Child Seat

When shopping for a car seat it’s important to look for one that encourages a good pre-crash position. If your child fits comfortably in the seat they’ll be less likely to squirm around plus they’ll probably be a lot less likely to cry.

Sparling said, “We try to add innovation to the seat,” including things like no-twist harnesses so it’s easier to strap a child in. Recaro also emphasizes full-body side-impact protection. Generous bolsters on their seats help shield children during transverse crashes. This is an innovation that comes straight from the firm’s racing heritage.

Memory foam for enhanced comfort, ventilated seat shells to keep kiddies cool and easy-to-install designs are other Recaro engineering highlights. For added peace of mind their seats are also assembled in the United States.

“You always want the best of the best,” said Sparling. Make sure the seats your children ride in have not expired.

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Craig Cole
Craig Cole

Born and raised in metro Detroit, Craig was steeped in mechanics from childhood. He feels as much at home with a wrench or welding gun in his hand as he does behind the wheel or in front of a camera. Putting his Bachelor's Degree in Journalism to good use, he's always pumping out videos, reviews, and features for AutoGuide.com. When the workday is over, he can be found out driving his fully restored 1936 Ford V8 sedan. Craig has covered the automotive industry full time for more than 10 years and is a member of the Automotive Press Association (APA) and Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA).

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