MIDLOTHIAN, Va. -- Much like the children who sit in them, McRae Brittingham says each model of child safety seat is a little bit different.
Brittingham, a state-certified child passenger safety technician, is hopeful Virginia parents learn the proper way to install car seats ahead of a change in Virginia law requiring rear-facing safety seats until a child reaches a certain age.
"A $500 seat won’t protect your child if it’s not installed properly," Brittingham said. "The biggest thing about car seat safety: read your vehicle manual, read your car seat manual, and then figure out how they work together."
Virginia's new child seat law was passed in 2018 but takes effect July 1, 2019. State officials wanted to give parents and families time to adjust to the change.
The policy "prohibits child restraint devices from being forward-facing until, at least, the child reaches two years of age or until the child reaches the minimum weight limit for a forward-facing child restraint device."
Doctors can also determine if it is impractical for a child to sit in a rear-facing seat because of the child's height.
Research by the American Academy of Pediatrics shows children are 75% less likely to die or get seriously injured in an accident when their seat is rear-facing.
"The back of the seat cradles their spines. In forward facing position, their heads are going to flop forward in a crash, and this is going to cradle them," Brittingham said. "We’d rather have broken legs than a broken neck."
A violation of the child safety seat law is a primary offense, meaning a police officer can pull a driver over and give them a ticket without a separate violation.
A $50 civil penalty fine is imposed for failure to have a child in a child restraint device, and any person found guilty a second or subsequent time, on different dates, will be fined up to $500, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
Brittingham said most parents know the difficulty of properly installing a car seat and mistakes are easy to make.
"I don’t know if I’ve ever checked a seat that didn’t at least have something wrong," she said.
Parents and families can set up appointments with specialists like Brittingham to check their car seats and get help from a professional. The Virginia Department of Health has a list of places you can go to get your safety seat checked out.
Free child safety and booster seats are also available for people of low income through a VDH program. You must qualify and apply for the program.
"How much your child weighs, how tall they are, what kind of vehicle you have, how many other kids are in the car, that all plays into what is the best seat for you. There’s no 'the best seat,'" Brittingham said.
Brittingham, who operates Aunt McRae's family support company, suggests parents keep their child seat rear facing until they turn three or four years old.
"Kids rear facing always survive a lot better than anybody else in the car," she said.
Jennifer Meade and her children visited Brittingham for a car seat inspection Tuesday and said she is glad that she did.
"The car seats keep tipping a little bit. I thought I knew everything. Apparently, I don’t," Meade said. "Even if you’ve read up on everything and you’ve installed your car seat the way it’s supposed to, I still recommend coming here because you could have one mistake that could cost you everything."