Q: I have a used car seat that is in great condition. The cover even looks new. I listed this car seat on my local Freecycle group, and now I'm getting emails from people who say that the car seat is expired and is dangerous and should be destroyed. I bought the car seat in 1999. I wouldn't sell it if it was obviously dangerous, but I don't see how a car seat in perfectly good condition should be thrown away.
A: To answer your first question, yes, car seats do expire. In fact, most car seats have an expiration date on one of the manufacturer labels that can be found on the sides or bottom of the car seat. To find out if a car seat is expired, you should look for that expiration date label first. If there's no expiration date listed, use the date of manufacture and consult the car seat owners' manual. Many manufacturers give a maximum car seat life in the manual. If not, call the manufacturer and ask.
The rule of thumb, if no expiration date is given on the seat, is that car seats expire six years from the date of manufacture. Assuming that your car seat was manufactured in 1999, when you purchased it, yes, it is expired. A few car seat manufacturers allow up to 10 years of life for their car seats, but unless you have specific directions from the manufacturer, the car seat label or the manual that state otherwise, you should stop using a car seat after 6 years. Expired car seats should be destroyed so that no one picks the seat up thinking that it is still safe to use. Good ways to destroy car seats include cutting up the cover, cutting the harness straps, and using a saw or large hammer to break the shell. If you can actually watch the car seat go into a garbage truck and watch it be crushed, this is a good option, too.
One very good reason to stick to manufacturer's car seat expiration dates is that crash data and tests are constantly being used to make changes to car seats so they can do a better job of protecting children in crashes. Using a car seat that is many years old could mean your baby's car seat isn't utilizing newer technologies that could be lifesaving in a crash, or it could be out of date in terms of safety standards. Older car seats are also more likely to have been involved in a recall that was missed, which could mean there's a dangerous problem with the seat. Giving car seats an expiration date isn't about money. It's about making sure your child's car seat is as safe as possible.
While I can understand the frustration of throwing away something that still looks good, it's important to understand that the breakdown of a car seat is not something that can always be seen with the naked eye. Car seats are made of plastics. Consider what happens to a plastic toy if it is left outside for some time. The plastic becomes brittle and can develop cracks when stressed. Car seats are subjected to extreme heat and extreme cold while sitting in your vehicle, so the plastics eventually react just like that toy left in the sun.
You may not be able to see that the plastic is breaking down, or is more brittle, but that change could be dangerous in a crash when the car seat shell is stressed. You can see this problem in action by watching this crash test video of an expired car seat. In the video, the car seat harness breaks through the shell of the seat upon impact. This car seat would not have adequately protected a child in a crash. It's far safer for parents to buy a new car seat than to take a chance on a car seat that may be too old to function properly in a crash.
Heather Corley is a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician.