It's the call no parent ever wants to receive. But if you do, your heart skips a full five beats.
"We were in a car accident," the voice cracked over the phone as I bolted straight up. "We are all alright. Here's our location."
The good news: the car seats did their job to safely protect my children. Now I'm replacing them (the seats, not the kids). Hopefully, this isn't something you'll ever have to deal with. If your car is involved in any kind of crash, you might need to replace your car seats as well.
The call and the crash
The phone rang and I saw it was the caretaker of my two children. They had just left the house minutes before, so the phone ringing with her name on the screen wasn't something I expected.
I answered the phone and heard the worst thing I could imagine: there had been a wreck.
I kept my composure and was relieved to hear that everyone was all right. Without missing a beat, I told her to stay put and that I was on my way.
When the driver of an Audi Q5 had not yielded a flashing yellow light, they contacted the Toyota Prius my kids were riding in.
Within minutes, I was on the scene just behind two fire trucks, one ambulance, and five police cars. The cavalry had been called in.
Toyota Prius after car crash, July 2017
Audi Q5 after car crash, July 2017
Audi Q5 after car crash, July 2017
I ran to the mangled Prius and saw my kids inside, still strapped into their car seats. My 3.5-year-old daughter was clearly shaken up and scared, but fine. My 16-month-old son was silent, and seemed unaware of what had just happened.
A firefighter gave me permission to unstrap them; my son was happy to be out of his car seat, but my daughter clung to me.
To distract them, the helpful firefighters offered the kids stuffed animals. In due course, everyone was deemed fine and we were cleared by the medics.
Both cars had to be towed away. But the car seats? They appeared to be just fine, still strapped in firmly.
"This thing is locked in here tight," one of the police officers said. "Who put this in here?"
After I told him that I had, he said that most people don't know how to secure a car seat properly. It's not only sad, but a major issue when it comes to protecting a child during a crash—despite the fact that drivers can get their installations checked for free at inspection stations all across the U.S.
But just because the seats looked fine at a quick glance doesn't mean that they're still safe.
If it's anything but a minor fender-bender, replace it
The car seats looked brand new, as if I had just taken them out of the box. But they've been through hell, or at least as close to hell as plastic, metal, and nylon straps can handle.
They had just been put under the stress of a crash and they had protected my children as intended. According to the NHTSA, they had sacrificed themselves and were due for replacement.
The NHTSA recommends car seats be replaced following a "moderate or severe" crash, though not after a "minor" crash. The agency defines a minor crash as one in which a vehicle must be able to drive away from the crash, the doors nearest to the car seat were not damaged, no passenger sustained injuries, no airbags were deployed, and no damage to the car seat is visible.
The Prius my kids were in could not drive away from the crash, even though it met all the other requirements.
I called up Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at the Consumer Reports auto test center, to ask her what she thought.
"Consumer Reports thinks the NHTSA criteria is quite good," she told me. "It encapsulates everything. But we do extensive amounts of simulated crashes with car seats and there are often internal components that you can’t see that get bent or broken. If it’s anything but a minor fender-bender, replace it."
Car seats are expensive, but it turns out that they're also covered by insurance. As the claim was filed it was noted that two car seats were in the car at the time of the crash. After I provided their make and model, the insurance company told us to buy new car seats and to save the receipts for full reimbursement. There was no haggling, negotiating, or questioning.
Even an insurance company doesn't want to quibble when it comes to a child's safety.
So what will happen to those car seats that still look new despite the crash?
I'll dispose of them properly, which includes cutting the straps so no one can use them, blacking out the serial numbers, removing any detachable parts, and either I'll put them in the trash or drop them off at Babies 'R Us for proper recycling.
You've probably already learned that car seats expire, and why you shouldn't view that as a ploy by car-seat makers just to sell you another seat.
If you've read this far, you likely now understand that just because a car seat may look new after a crash, there's still a good chance it should be replaced. What's more, it shouldn't cost you a dime; your insurance company should cover the cost of the replacement.
My car seats looked new, but why even take a small chance with my kids' safety?
Hug your kids tonight and remember: you just never know what's going to happen in life.