Road trips with kids: California car seat law
California offers any number of memorable road trip destinations, from the natural beauty of the Sierras and Pacific Coast Highway to historic sites and (ahem) one or two moderately popular theme parks. If the road trip you choose includes kids, you'll need to be familiar with California's child car seat laws before you set out. These fit neatly onto a one-page brochure, but there are some fine points you should be aware of.
Rear-facing, front-facing and booster seats
When it comes to car seats for children under 8 years old, the most important detail is when to use a rear-facing, front-facing or booster seat. Rear-facing seats are the safest, and in California they're mandatory for children under 1 year of age and recommended for kids up to 2 years old. At that time, you can switch to a forward-facing seat, which as a rule is safe until about the age of 5, when your child moves into a booster seat. California law requires children to ride in a booster seat until at least the age of 8, and you should keep on using the booster until your child is big enough for a regular seat belt to fit safely.
Size and weight are more important than age
Kids don't all grow at the same rate, so those age limits are less important in practical terms than the size and weight of each individual child. Every seat is certified only to a maximum size and weight, so your child's growth should tell you when it's time to move from rear-facing to front-facing seats or to a booster seat. If you aren't bringing your own seat with you, check your borrowed or rented seat closely before you install it. Its limits might be different from those on your own seat. Rear-facing seats are safer than front-facing seats, and those are safer than booster seats, so when in doubt stick with the conservative option.
The front seat is a no-no
Getting to ride in the front seat is a big deal when you're a kid, but be wary of giving in to your youngster's puppy-dog eyes. The front seat is also a big deal under California law, but for the opposite reason: It's not a safe place for young passengers to ride. Under ordinary circumstances, only kids taller than 4 feet 9 inches and over the age of 8 are allowed to ride in the front seat. That's large enough for most seat belts to fit safely. The law includes a few exemptions allowing kids to ride in the front, in a suitable booster or car seat: f there is no rear seat or the rear seat is unsuitable, if a car seat can't be safely installed, if the back seats are taken up with younger children, or if medical reasons rule out the use of the back seat.
Rental cars are required to offer a seat
If you opt to start your California road trip by flying into Los Angeles, San Francisco or another major center and driving a rental from there, you have the option of renting a car seat. Under California law, the car-rental company is obligated to furnish you with a car seat for each child on demand, but that might not be your best option. Companies vary in the quality of seats they offer, and if the manual doesn't come with the seat, you might have difficulty installing it safely. You also might find that the rental seat is not adequately cleaned, and you don't know for certain if it was in a crash before you rented it. You may be better off bringing your own, which has the added bonus that you can use it to keep your child safe on the plane while you're in transit.
You can have your installation checked for free
If you're working with an unfamiliar seat or vehicle, or if you're driving in from another state and want to be sure you're in compliance with California law, you can have the seat's installation checked for free. The California Highway Patrol and other organizations offer inspections by certified child passenger safety technicians at locations all across the state. You can look up inspection locations on the CHP's website or use the inspection location search page on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Parents Central website, Safercar.gov. Choose one near the airport or rental agency if you're flying in, or one near the state border if you're driving.