Rules of the Road

What does Washington’s new child passenger restraint law mean for your kids?

September is National Child Passenger Safety Month.

It’s also National Chicken Month, International Update Your Resume Month, National Piano Month and about 35 other reasons to celebrate. Even the blueberry popsicle declares September as its month.

And don’t get started on specific weeks and days. Cheese, skyscrapers and telephones all have their own day.

Add them all up and September has 130 supposed holidays.

Some of these are patently ridiculous — National Meow Like a Pirate Day? What? That doesn’t even make sense.

But if you have kids, care for kids, like kids or even just begrudgingly admit that they are our future, this month has an important message. Plus it’s a good time to address changes to the law.

Last spring our state updated our child passenger restraint law.

Right now some of the parents reading this are probably worried that we have a law requiring us to show parental restraint when our child passengers get too annoying. Have no fear — in this context restraint refers to car seats, booster seats and seatbelts (although parental restraint might still be a good practice. I’ll let you make that call.)

The new version of the law takes effect on Jan. 1, 2020, giving us a few months to get educated on what’s in the law and how it affects the way we transport kids.

Let’s start with a quick review of the current law.

Right now the law says that kids less than 8 years old or under 4-feet, 9-inches tall are to be restrained in a child restraint system. After that they can use a properly adjusted seat belt.

I’m oversimplifying a little, but that’s about all the guidance you get from the law.

Okay, it does add that you are to follow the manufacturer’s instructions. You can see how the law is less helpful than it could be in equipping parents, especially considering that traffic crashes are the number one cause of child fatalities.

The new law provides more guidance for child caregivers. Also, the guidance is based on the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics, so it’s not like they’re just making this stuff up.

And now, the new rules:

Children under the age of 2 are to be secured in a rear-facing car seat (and you can keep a kid in a rear-facing seat until they outgrow it.)

Children under the age of 4 are to be secured in a forward-facing car seat (and they can stay in a forward-facing seat until they outgrow it.)

Children under the height of 4-9 are to be secured in a booster seat (and they can stay in a booster seat as long as it provides a better fit than a regular seat belt.)

The updated law eliminates a lot of the guesswork for parents, and it’s built on solid research, but it does have one change that some kids might not be happy about.

I’m thinking of the 8-year-olds who just graduated to using a seat belt but haven’t reached 4-9 yet. That’s right, the new law doesn’t have an age when a kid outgrows a booster seat, just a height.

That makes sense; seat belt fit is about size, not age.

But I’ll predict that some of the kids who have to go back to the booster seat for a while won’t want to hear about recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics or the size of the ticket mom and dad will get if they don’t use the required child restraint.

All I can say is, good luck with that. I’m here to explain traffic laws, and I’ll leave it up to the grown-ups in the car to figure out how to implement it.

One thing that hasn’t changed in the law: kids under the age of 13 still ride in the back seat whenever practical.

I’ve just hit the highlights of the new law, so you might still have some practical questions about car seats, such as:

What seat will fit best in my car?

How do I install it?

I installed my car seat, and I’m pretty sure it’s in wrong. Can somebody help?

It’d be nice if there was an expert you could ask. Fortunately there is.

Across our state there are car seat technicians trained to help you get your kid properly secured in your car. You can find one in your area, along with a lot more information about car seats, by visiting

If you think you could use some help, give a car seat tech a call. They’ll be happy to help.

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Doug Dahl, Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, answers questions about road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices every Monday. Ask him a question using our form. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit