What to do after a crash

Updated December 2019.

You’ve done the research, bought the right seat for your child and situation, and had it checked by a tech and properly installed. All of this is to keep your child safe in the event of a crash, though everyone hopes it will never happen to them. But if you are involved in a crash, what now?

Hopefully no one was seriously hurt. Document everything, and take photos if possible.  Call the police if necessary.  If a child needs medical assistance sometimes the first responders will keep them in their car seats for transport – they’ll cut the seat right out of the vehicle as the seat itself acts like a backboard of sorts.  And then…

Photo Credit: CPST Megan Robertson
Styrofoam dented from impact with child’s head.  Photo Credit: CPST Megan Robertson

Can I keep using my seat after a crash?

The short answer is, probably not. The forces in even a minor crash can compromise the plastic and/or webbing on a seat, even if you can’t see any damage. There is no way to re-certify a seat after a crash, and no one in Canada is authorized or able to check and approve crashed seats for re-use, despite claims to the contrary that we sometimes see online.

If you are unsure whether your seat is safe for re-use, check the car seat manual or call the manufacturer. The majority of manufacturers say you must replace your seat after any crash, even a minor one, and even if the seat is not occupied. Even unoccupied, the seat has still been subjected to forces along the belt path and (in the event of a forward-facing seat) top tether.

There are a very few seats that may be safe to reuse after a minor crash, as defined by the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), which is a US organization. Check your car seat manual to find out if yours is one of them.  Your manual, if applicable, will state a list similar to this if the seat does not require replacement after a minor crash.

These seats were not cut or moved after this crash; this is how much the belts stretched. Credit: Anne
These seats were not cut or moved after this crash; this is how much the belts stretched.
  • The vehicle was able to be driven away from the crash site;
  • The vehicle door nearest the safety seat was undamaged;
  • There were no injuries to any of the vehicle occupants (this includes neck or back pain);
  • The air bags (if present) did not deploy; AND
  • There is no visible damage to the safety seat

Since you’re not advised to use the seat again even once how do you get home from a crash scene?  If possible have someone bring a seat to you — a new one purchased en route, or maybe a parent friend has a similarly sized child and can deliver you home in their seat.  Send one parent via taxi to a store to pick one up, or home to get a spare from your other vehicle or basement.  Do what you can as ideally no child will ever ride in that crashed seat again.

One of the most common questions we get when it comes to crashes, is whether a particular crash “counts”.  Questions like “I backed into a post in the parking lot” or “I bounced off the snow bank and there’s a tiny dent in the bumper.” Unfortunately, this isn’t a judgment call we as techs can or should make. If there is any doubt as to whether the crash warrants replacing the seats, you should call the car seat manufacturer themselves and talk to them. Note that Transport Canada itself states that child restraints should be replaced after any crash, no matter how minor, and does not follow the US NHTSA guidelines.

If the vehicle damage is being covered by insurance, the car seats may be too. Insurance policies of private or public insurance companies can vary widely. Some insurance companies are notoriously difficult to deal with when trying to have car seats replaced, even if the policy does cover them. Being firm, pointing out the replacement requirement in the car seat manuals, and remaining insistent can work. Remember that even an unoccupied seat needs to be replaced.  If you continue to have difficulty with your insurance company please be in touch with us and we’ll see if we have any ideas specific to your situation.

Photo credit: Casey Leach
Seats were moved by first responders to access injured passengers in the 3rd row.

Try to avoid having the insurance company pay you a prorated amount based on the age of the car seat because to replace it, you have to pay full price. Generally they will want a receipt for the old seat and a receipt for the new one, and will give you an amount for the lesser of the two values. Depending on your adjuster, they may insist you purchase the exact same seat. If you don’t have your old receipt, usually sending them a listing of the car seat online will be enough.

If the vehicle is not covered under insurance, it should fall to the person who is at fault to cover the cost of replacing the car seats.  In the event of a severe crash, the car seat manufacturer themselves may replace the seat for you in exchange for the crashed one. They often find it useful to examine seats involved in “real world” crashes to aid in the research, development and design of future restraints. Contact the manufacturer of your seat to inquire about this option.

Credit: CPST Megan Robertson
Dismantled seats after a crash. Credit: CPST Megan Robertson
First responder photo
First responder photo

As for what to do with the old seat, you can keep the cover off the seat if you want, for use or for sale for another identical seat, but everything else including the harness should be destroyed or recycled. Sometimes a local car seat technician might like the seat to use for training purposes, and we have exemptions to use seats for this purpose from Health Canada. Some areas have recycling depots that will take old car seats. Otherwise, it will need to be thrown out. Cut the straps and padding, write “Crashed, do not use” on the shell, even take a hammer or a saw to it, and bag it up so it isn’t obvious what it is. Do not under any circumstances sell or pass on a seat that has been in a crash, however minor. This is also one reason it is not recommended to buy a used seat unless you trust the seller with your child’s life, as damage from a crash is not always obvious and you don’t know if the seller has been in a crash and chose not to count it as such.

Credit: Rachel
Very minor injuries occurred in this crash thanks to properly installed seats.  Credit: Rachel

If insurance is covering the cost, they will normally want proof that the seat has been destroyed and will not be reused. Often the body shops or mechanic shops fixing the cars are able to do this and will destroy and dispose of the seat for you. Some insurance companies may collect the seats themselves.

Remember also to contact your vehicle manufacturer about whether your seat belts should be replaced (if seats were installed with seat belt), and/or whether the lower anchors or top tether are still safe to use (if seats were installed with UAS).

As always, if you need any tips or advice on choosing a new seat, dealing with insurance, or making sure you have a proper install in a new seat and/or vehicle, you can contact a tech or ask on our Facebook page for help.

Special thanks to those who shared their photos with us for this post. To read more of the stories behind some of the pictures, see:

Anne’s story: Why I Do What I Do

Rachel’s story: Is rear facing safe when you’re rear ended?

Casey’s story: My crash story