Child and infant car seat safety laws have evolved in the past 25 years. States were slow to enact laws to prevent injuries and death caused by not using child car seat safety restraints or improperly made infant car seat systems. Today state laws require infant car seats as well as booster car seats for children and other motor vehicle safety requirements. Prevention and proper restraining is a key component to a safe ride.
In 2001, the federal government required passenger vehicles and child restraints to feature LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children). LATCH was supposed to eliminate the need to use the car's seat belt to hold down the car seat. LATCH was designed to standardize installation and reduce guesswork. (Note that the LATCH requirement only applies to vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating, GVWR, under 8,500 pounds. Some manufacturers, such as Ford and General Motors, have voluntarily installed LATCH on many of its full-size trucks and vans. All child restraints are required to feature LATCH except car beds and boosters.)
A LATCH-compliant vehicle has metal anchors, usually located on the seat back or rear bulkhead, to hold the car seat's upper tether. It also has lower anchor points in the seat crack — the place where cookie crumbs usually hide — to receive the metal LATCH connectors built into the lower part of car seats.
Each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia has its own set of child occupant protection laws. The laws vary widely in age requirements, seating positions, exemptions, enforcement, and penalties. If you're caught with your child improperly restrained in one state, you might face a stiff fine, but in another state you'd get the proverbial slap on the wrist.
State laws have generally been regarded as weak but with new awareness, they are improving. About half of the states have strengthened their laws to require some older children to ride in booster seats. Some states now require car rental agencies to provide customers with infant and child car seats. Others require a public fund and educational campaign to promote child passenger safety.
California has, by far, the best vehicle child protection laws in the country. It requires all children age 15 and under to be restrained in some manner. Children ages 5 and under and weighing less than 60 pounds must be in an appropriate child safety seat. Starting January 1, 2005, this seat is required to be in the back. However, the state still does not expressly require use of booster seats for children ages 6 and 7 — something pediatricians and child safety advocates strongly recommend.
Here is a comprehensive list of state by state car seat laws: