Car seat safety seems like a simple thing.
Buy a car seat that fits your kid, buckle them in, and whala! You’re all set.
Well, there’s a lot more that goes into it. Properly installing a car seat, for example, can be kind of a headache, and tricky to get exactly right (but super important).
One pretty common question new parents tend to have is: Do car seats float?
The answer is… probably, yes. Some studies have shown that car seats have enough buoyancy to float in the event of a water emergency (the insides are often padded with lots of foam.)
Whether you’ll want to rely on your child’s carseat as a floatation device in such a frightening event is another story.
What are child car seats made of?
A lot goes into car seat construction, especially uber-safe modern car seats.
(The history of car seats is fascinating, and very brief. Front facing seats, for example, didn’t become commonplace for older kids until pretty recently.)
Typically, the average car seat is put together like this:
- Frame: This is usually made from an extremely tough plastic like polypropylene (same as a lot of strollers). It’s powerful but also flexible enough to withstand heavy impact.
- Buckles: The buckles on a car seat are usually a mix of hard but flexible plastic and metal. My daughter’s car seat, for example, uses a plastic buckle to join the straps across the chest, but a heavy duty metal buckle down at the bottom… that’s where most of the force will be applied during a crash.
- Shoulder straps: These are typically nylon or some other kind of blended fabric. They’re flexible and meant to be comfortable, but also ridiculously strong.
- Anchor straps: Nylon again. These are actually a fairly new addition to car seats… most models actually used to be secured to the car using the car’s own seatbelts, but that’s no longer the standard.
- Seat covers: Ditto for seat covers, which are also typically made of some kind of synthetic fabric blend.
- Seat filling: Flame resistance, shock-absorbing foams are used to pad the seat for extra comfort and safety.
As you can tell, a lot of different materials go into manufacturing a child safety seat. And while they’re all governed by some pretty strict regulations, each is designed a little bit differently.
So, do they float?
This is definitely an important question.
God forbid you’re ever in the kind of car accident that sends your car careening into a body of water, but the truth is there a lot of things as parents we’d rather not think about but still need to be prepared for.
A water accident with your kid in their car seat is one of those scenarios.
The best answer I could find comes from Experts.com, in an article written by Aquatics Safety consultant out of the University of Bridgeport Connecticut, Gerald Dworkin.
In it, Dworkin writes that in limited testing done by his organization, he found most carseats to be suitably buoyant to be useful in water emergency situations.
“Therefore, the car seat can be cut loose from the seat belt and removed from the vehicle with the child still secured in the car seat,” he continues.
(That sounds enormously difficult to do in practice, under pressure, in a life or death situation… but we’ll get into what you should do a little later.)
I wanted to double source this so I also wrote a note to Graco, one of the leading manufacturers of baby gear, and especially car seats.
I asked if the majority of their car seats float and if they’d recommend using them in the case of a water emergency / vehicle crash.
(As soon as I hear back with their answer I’ll update this space!)
What to do during a water crash (with young children)
OK, so if car seats can float, does that mean you should count on them to come in handy during a crash?
Well, that’s debatable.
Dworkin is a water safety expert and he writes that it’s possible to use the car seat that way, but most experts actually advise getting young kids loose from their car seat during any kind of rescue or escape from a submerged vehicle.
It’s probably best if you don’t rely on your child’s car seat to float children to safety.
So what should you do instead?
There are a lot of different strategies for dealing with a sinking or submerged car during an accident, but they all have one thing in common:
Have a plan.
Without a strategy at the ready, the urge to panic will be too great and you may lose your window to take action.
A cold-water submersion expert told CBS San Francisco his recommended action plan:
Seatbelt, Window, Out:
Seatbelt Off – While remaining as calm as possible, get yourself out of your seatbelt. You’re going to have to lead everyone out of the car and to safety, so step one is freeing yourself from your restraint.
Windows open or broken – Create an exit path. It’s a good idea to keep something hefty in the car at all times for this scenario (hammer, screwdriver, or a care safety multitool… in fact, here’s a really awesome one you can keep on your key chain at all times to cut seat belts and break windows). If you can open the windows or doors properly, that’s great, but you may have to break a window. The expert notes you do this BEFORE unbuckling the kids, because once the car starts to sink, the window becomes harder and harder to open or break.
(Scary but important note: He says you have about one minute from the time the car hits the water to get the window open without having to break it.)
Out (children first) oldest to youngest – Once you’ve created the exit path, it’s time to get everyone out. Get all of your children unbuckled and out the window or door. (If you have older kids, get them out first because they may be able to help with the younger ones.)
While, yes, car seats may float, disconnecting them entirely will probably take longer and you’re better off removing the child from the carseat yourself. (Anyone who has ever installed or uninstalled a car seat can attest to this… They can be a major pain and fiddling with them in a sinking car could be extremely dangerous.)
It’s a good to practice speed-unbuckling your child in case you ever need to get them out extremely quickly.
The order of the steps above may change or be in a different order depending on whose advice you take, but the key thing to remember is that windows and doors become more difficult to open as the water pressure builds and the car sinks deeper. Opening an exit should be your top priority so that you can get everyone out safely.
Car seat construction and limited evidence suggest that, yes, your kid’s car seat probably does float.
But if you’re ever in an underwater emergency following a car crash, you’re probably better off leaving the seat behind.
(That is, until they come up with safe, quick release car seats, which many safety experts have been advocating for for a while.)
Practice unbuckling your kid from the seat quickly (it could even be a little game you play with yourself during school drop off!), just in case you ever need to. Keep a heavy, window-breaking object in your car (just stow it in the glove box), and make sure you remember the strategy.
Be safe, and I hope this has helped!