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Child Car Seat Laws
Kids younger than 8 years old and weighing less than 80 pounds must ride in a car seat or booster.
Depending on which comes first, kids can upgrade to a seat belt once they turn 8 years old or top 80 pounds.
Car seats must be fastened in a rear seat if your child is under five, weighs less than 40 pounds, and if your car contains passenger-side airbags. You can bypass this requirement if your child’s safety seat is airbag-compatible.
Read our How to Buy a Child Safety Seat article for more information.
Kids, younger than 16 years old, must wear a seat belt regardless of where they sit and follow the child safety law weight requirements above.
Everyone 16 years old and older must wear a seat belt in any seat.
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UNC Highway Safety Research Center www.hsrc.unc.edu / www/buckleupnc.org Revised: June 2013
Basic Types of
What are the basic requirements of this law?
‚ All children less than 16 years of age must be properly restrained in all vehicle
seating positions. All drivers and occupants 16 and older must also be buckled up
in any seating position, but they are covered by the NC Seat
‚ Vehicles covered are those required by federal standards
to be equipped with seat belts. This includes cars made
since 1968 as well as pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles, and
vans made since 1972. Ambulances and other emergency
vehicles are exempt.
‚ Children younger than age 8 AND who weigh less than
80 pounds must be properly secured in child restraints (CRs)
appropriate for their weight and height. Belt-positioning
booster seats can be used for children over 40 pounds. Belt positioning
boosters raise children up to make lap and
shoulder combination belts fit correctly.
‚ When a child reaches age 8 (regardless of weight) OR
80 pounds (regardless of age), a properly fitted seat belt
may be used to restrain the child. Shoulder belts behind the
back or under the arm are unsafe and are not allowed.
‚ If there is no lap and shoulder belt equipped seating
position available for using a belt-positioning booster, a child
who weighs at least 40 pounds may be restrained by a
properly fitted lap belt only. Belt-positioning booster seats
can only be used with lap and shoulder combination seat
belts. Belt-positioning booster seats must NEVER be used
with just a lap belt.
Is it “8 OR 80” or “8 AND 80”???
In part the answer lies in which question is being asked:
Q: “Is my child required to be in a booster seat or other
A: A child who is both less than age 8 AND less than 80
pounds is required to be in some type of child restraint.
This could include a booster seat.
Q: “Can I switch my child to just a seat belt alone?”
A: A child may be restrained by properly fitted seat belts
when he reaches age 8 (regardless of weight) OR
reaches 80 pounds (regardless of age).
‚ Note, however, that a child who has reached 40 pounds,
regardless of age, may be restrained by only a properly fitted
lap belt if there is no lap and shoulder belt equipped seating
position available for use with a belt-positioning booster seat.
‚ There are no booster seats currently being made that
can be used with just a lap belt. Belt-positioning booster
seats may only be used with lap and shoulder combination
belts and must NEVER be used with just a lap belt.
Which car seats are approved for use in
NC? How can I tell if I have an approved seat?
‚ Any type of child restraint (CR) is legal to use as long as: 1) It is certified to
meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213; 2) the child is within the
weight/height range specified for the CR; and 3) the CR is being used correctly
according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
‚ Booster seats, harnesses, and CRs built into vehicles are legal and safe to
use. Look for labels on the CR which certifies that it meets federal standards for
use in a motor vehicle and gives the model number and date of manufacturer.
‚ A child restraint should not be used if it has missing labels, is expired, has
missing or broken parts, or has been involved in a severe crash.
When can infants be turned around to face the front of the car?
‚ The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children be kept
rear-facing until at least age two for maximum protection. Children are five times
safer riding rear-facing than forward-facing into the second year of life. However,
in NC it is legal to turn an infant to face the front of the vehicle whenever the
manufacturer of the child restraint (CR) being used allows it, generally at 1 year
old and 20 pounds.
‚ Many rear-facing only CRs and most current convertible CRs, those that can
be used either rear- or front-facing, can be used up to 30-40 pounds rear-facing
(depending on model).
When can children be put in a booster seat?
‚ It is legal to switch to a booster seat at any point as long as the child is within
the height/weight/age range stated by the booster manufacturer. However, it is not
generally recommended to use booster seats until after the forward-facing child
restraint (CR) with a harness is outgrown and the child is mature enough to syay
properly seated in the booster seat. Most seats on the market today have
harnesses that can accommodate children weighing more than 40 pounds and
some can accommodate children weighing up to 90 pounds .
‚ Belt-positioning boosters must be used with vehicle lap and shoulder
combination seat belts – NEVER with just a lap belt.
‚ Older shield type booster seats, those with just a padded bar or shield in front
of the child, are no longer being made and are not generally recommended.
When is my child big enough for a seat belt?
‚ NC law does not allow the use of a lap and shoulder combination seat belt
until a child is at least 8 years old OR weighs at least 80 pounds and the belt fits
properly. Properly fitted lap belts fit low and snug across the hips and should
touch the upper thighs. Properly fitted shoulder belts must fit correctly across the
collar bone and chest.
‚ A seat belt with the shoulder belt placed under the arm or behind the back is
neither legal nor safe for children or adults. Improper use such as this can lead to
serious injuries to the head, internal organs, or spine in a crash.
‚ Add-on shoulder belt adjusters are not legal, nor are they recommended, since
they are not covered by any Federal standards and may do more harm than
‚ SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A. has developed a simple “5-Step Test” to see if a child
is big enough to ride in a lap and shoulder belt combination. If you answer “no”
to any of these questions, your child needs a booster seat to ride safely and
comfortably in the car:
1) Does the child sit all the way back against the auto seat?
2) Do the child’s knees bend comfortably at the edge of the auto seat?
3) Does the belt cross the shoulder between the neck and arm?
4) Is the lap belt as low as possible, touching the thighs?
5) Can the child stay seated like this for the whole trip?
The North Carolina Child Passenger Safety &
Booster Seat Law: Commonly Asked Questions
Images courtesy of
Childrens’ Hospital of Philadelphia
North Carolina Child Passenger Safety Law Commonly Asked Questions
UNC Highway Safety Research Center www.hsrc.unc.edu / www/buckleupnc.org Revised: June 2013
For further information contact: For further information or to order brochures or other educational materials, contact:
UNC Highway Safety Research Center
800-672-4527 / 919-962-2202
NC Governor’s Highway Safety Program
NC Department of Insurance
NC Safe Kids Buckle Up
888-347-3737 / 919-661-5880
Do children have to ride in the back seat?
‚ NC law requires that a child restraint (CR) be properly installed in the rear seat
if the child is less than 5 years of age and less than 40 pounds in weight and the
vehicle has an active passenger side air bag.
‚ The CR may be installed in the front seat if the vehicle has an air bag on-off
switch that is turned off.
‚ Infants in rear-facing child restraints should NEVER ride in the front seat of a
vehicle with an active passenger side air bag.
‚ Regardless of what is legal, it is strongly recommended that:
< All children age 12 and under should ride buckled up in a rear seat in restraints
appropriate for their age and size.
< If a child over two years old MUST ride in the front seat with a passenger side
air bag, put the child in a forward facing full harness CR, belt-positioning
booster seat, or a properly fitted lap and shoulder belt (whichever is
appropriate given the child’s age and size) and move the vehicle seat as far
back as possible.
Who is responsible for the children in a car?
‚ The driver is legally responsible for obeying the law and would get the ticket
even if the child's parent is also in the car.
What are the penalties for violations of this law?
‚ Failure to secure a child in an appropriate CRS or seat belt violations carry a
fine of up to $25 plus full court costs and fees (currently $238) for a total of $263
plus two driver license points.
What are the differences between what the NC law allows and what
is recommended for buckling up children?
‚ What is allowed under this law can be considered to be "minimum standards"
and is not necessarily what is recommended to provide the best protection for a
child or adult.
‚ For best protection, recommendations are that:
< Children should ride in a rear-facing-only or rear-facing convertible child
restraint (CR) as long as possible, but at least until at least until age two.
< Once turned around facing to the front, children should ride in a front-facing
seat with a full harness until it is outgrown. Most seats that can be used
forward facing with a harness on the market today have harnesses that can
accommodate children weighing much more than 40 pounds.
< Children should switch to a belt-positioning booster seat when the full harness
seat is outgrown and continue riding in the booster seat until the seat belt fits
correctly without the booster seat, generally around 4'9" tall, over 80 pounds,
and between the ages of 8 and 12. Except for children in lap-belt-only
positions, NC law does not allow the use of a seat belt until at least 8 years old
or 80 pounds.
< Children should not be switched to a seat belt until the child is big enough for
a correct fit of the belt and is mature enough to sit reasonably still.
< Lap belts alone should be used only if nothing else is available. Currently,
there are no boosters on the market certified for use over 40 pounds in a lapbelt-only
position, so options for larger children are limited. Safer options for
lap-belt-only positions are as follow:
< Purchase and use a higher weight harness (more than 40 lbs.) CR.
< Use a harness that is designed for children over 40 pounds. These require
extra installation, but do provide good upper body protection in lap belt only
< Check with your local car dealer or vehicle manufacturer to see if retrofit
shoulder belt kits are available for the rear seat. If so, these can be
installed for a child to use with a belt-positioning booster.
How important is it that car seats are used the way the
‚ Child restraints that are not used correctly lose much of their ability to
protect children in crashes. Correct use requires three important steps:
1) the CR must be the right type for the size and age of the child, 2) the
child must be buckled correctly into the CR, and 3) the CR must be
correctly buckled to the car.
‚ If you have any questions about the proper use of child restraints or need
to obtain complete manufacturer's instructions, call the manufacturer or the
UNC Highway Safety Research Center.
Are there any exemptions to this law?
‚ Ambulances and other emergency vehicles and vehicles not required to
have seat belts, such as buses and pre-1967 passenger cars, are exempt.
‚ Another exemption allows children to be left unbuckled if all belted seating
positions are occupied. This exemption was added to get the law first passed
in 1981 and has never been removed. It has never been considered to be a
safe practice and the driver must choose which child(ren) to leave
Are organizations such as schools, churches, and child care
centers covered under this law?
‚ No organizations - including public and private schools, churches, child
care centers, and camps - are exempt from the NC CPS Law. Any
organization or agency transporting children in vehicles required by Federal
standards to have seat belts must comply with all provisions of the NC CPS
‚ Most large buses, including school, charter and public transit buses, are not
required to be equipped with seat belts -other than for the driver - and thus are
exempt from the NC CPS law. These vehicles rely on strong, closely spaced,
well-padded, energy absorbing seats and higher seat backs to
"compartmentalize" and protect passengers during a crash.
‚ Seat belts are required on small school buses (under 10,000 lbs.) and
children being transported in these smaller buses are covered under this law.
‚ Refer to "Requirements and Recommendations for the Transportation of
Children by Schools, Child Care Centers and other Organizations in North
Carolina," available through www.buckleupnc.org for more information.
Can I let my children ride in the back of a pickup truck?
‚ A separate NC law prohibits most children less than age 16 from riding in
the open bed of a pickup truck or other open cargo area (more details at
www.buckleupnc.org). No child or adult should ride in the bed of a pickup truck
or any other place in the vehicle not designated as a seating position.