happy mother fastening child with car seat beltCar crashes are the leading cause of death among children from infancy to 12 years of age. Despite this horrifying trend, it is estimated that between 40 and 45% of children killed in car crashes were improperly restrained.

Think about it. When you brought your baby’s new car seat home, did you read the instructions? Failure to do so is often a life-and-death decision. When not installed correctly, a car seat may become a death trap for your precious package.

All 50 states have laws requiring children under three years of age to be buckled into an approved safety seat. However, most states actually require children to be in car seats or booster seats much longer. Car seats and booster seats significantly increase the safety of children in vehicles. States set their own laws regarding car seats, so be sure to check the requirements for your state.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, three out of four car seats have not been installed correctly. The most common mistakes: Not tightening the seat straps, failing to adhere to the manufacturer’s safety instructions and using the seat belt incorrectly. What’s more, 20% of all drivers transporting child passengers admitted that they did not read the instructions for properly installing their child seat. Child safety seats reduce the risk of death by 71% for infant passengers and 54% for toddlers from one to four years old, but the seat must be installed correctly to offer the maximum protection.

Here are some of the most common mistakes caregivers make when installing car seats.

1. Not installing it tightly enough. The best way to know if your child safety seat has been properly installed is to shake the seat and see if you can move it more than one inch from side to side or front to back. If there’s too much play, tighten the straps.

2. Incorrectly using the safety-seat straps. Simple mistakes can prove deadly. Slipping a seat belt through the wrong harness slot, improper seat belt placement, not ensuring the harness clip is even with the baby’s shoulders or armpits — any one of these can prove fatal to your baby in the event of a crash.

3. Prematurely turning the seat to the forward-facing position. In general, car seats should be in the rear-facing position until the child is at least a year old or has reached a weight of between 20 and 30 pounds. Once a child exceeds the maximum weight listed for a car seat, you can replace it with a larger model or a booster seat.

4. Not matching the seat to the child’s weight or age. Make sure you check the label on the car seat to make sure it is appropriate to your child’s age, weight and height.

5. Not reading all the instructions. It’s definitely not the most exciting reading. But always read the manufacturer’s instructions and follow installation procedures closely.