California Car Seat Laws Guide

california car seat laws
Latest posts by David Borgogni (see all)

Going on a field trip with your children or dropping them off on the first day of school are moments you’ll remember for the rest of your life.

These beautiful moments can be ruined in an instant, though, if you fail to ensure your child is safely buckled up in an infant car seat. If you live in California, you might face harsh penalties for violating the state’s child passenger safety regulation.

These laws aren’t difficult to understand, as they simply lay out seat requirements for children in different age groups. So, in this guide, I’ll explain California’s car seat laws in laymen’s terms and help you keep your kids safe during your journey.

Bottom Line Up Front

The federal car seat laws mandate that all children under two years of age must ride in rear-facing seats. California’s car seat laws have the same requirement and offer extensive guidelines on how a child can graduate to a booster seat.

The state provides support to low-income families who cannot afford a car seat for their children and offers free safety classes. Fines for failing to comply with buckle-up laws are steep and increase for repeated offenses.

In-Depth Guide to California Car Seat Laws

Little girl on booster Seat

The use of child safety seats and restraint systems is regulated under the California Vehicle Code Section 27360, which was enacted on January 1, 2017.

The Code Requires All Drivers to Follow These Passenger Guidelines:

  • Rear-facing car seats are mandatory for all children aged two or younger, and they must be restrained in accordance with the instructions provided by the seat manufacturer. The exceptions apply to children that weigh more than 40lbs or are taller than 40 inches.
  • Booster and front-facing seats are required for kids aged four to eight. Once a child is 4.9 feet tall or older than eight, it can use the car’s safety belt system.
  • The state law doesn’t indicate the age when a child can start riding in the front seat.
  • California’s Mandatory Seat Belt law applies to all minors aged sixteen or older.
  • Seat laws don’t apply to cars without backseats, emergency vehicles, or children with health issues.

California’s Rear-facing and Front-facing Seat Regulations

The state law is straightforward when it comes to infant safety regulations since all children under the age of two must ride in rear-facing seats. Unlike Kansas or Wyoming, which allow kids older than 12 months to ride in front-facing seats, California’s laws adhere to the federal car seat laws.

However, the state law doesn’t set an age limit on when parents can switch to front-facing seats. The general recommendation is to keep using a rear-facing seat until the child outgrows its weight and height limits, which usually happens between the ages of three and four.

The best car seats come with five-point harness systems that have two attachment points at the baby’s shoulders and hips and one between its legs. I’m currently using the Graco Snug Ride Click Connect 35, which has a LATCH installation system and a five-point harness system.

Its weight limit is 35lbs, but other car seat models can have weight limits up to 50lbs. Even though California’s law allows children that weigh more than 40lbs to ride in front-facing seats, I intend to keep using a rear-facing seat until my son is tall enough to graduate to a booster seat.

Convertible Car Seats

Cleck Foonf Convertible Seat

Opting for a model like the Cleck Foonf Convertible Seat that would allow you to place your child in rear and front-facing positions is an economical choice as you won’t have to buy another seat after a few years.

California’s law doesn’t restrict the use of these seats, so getting one of the convertible models can be an excellent long-term investment that will enable you to use the same seat for four or five years. It will also allow you to choose the right moment to switch from the rear-facing to the front-facing position.

However, convertible car seats are inconvenient for infants since they cannot double as carriers. Also, they’re heavier than standard rear-facing car seats, so moving them from one car to another can be difficult.

When choosing a convertible car seat, you should consider the model’s comfort level, side impact protection features, and weight or height limit. Most models are suitable for children that weigh up to 70lbs, and you shouldn’t switch to the booster seat until your child reaches the seat’s weight limit.

Booster Seat Requirements in California

The state law indicates that a child can start using a booster seat once they weigh more than 65lbs. In addition, booster seats are mandatory for all children until they turn eight or grow over 4.9-feet. After this point, kids are allowed to use car belts, but they’re not permitted in the front until they turn 13 because the airbag can injure them.

Even though the state requires all children younger than eight to sit in booster seats, the law doesn’t offer guidelines on when parents should stop using these seats. I think rushing a child into a regular seat isn’t advisable, especially if they’re not yet tall enough to fit the seat belt.

High-back models are commonly better suited for younger children, while backless booster seats are recommended for children between 8 and 12. Getting a booster seat like the Clek Oobr will enable you to get the best of both worlds because you can use it in high back and backless modes.

California’s Child Passenger Safety Violation Fines

All states have laws that define car seat requirements based on the child’s age, weight, and height. Violating these requirements is punishable by law, but offenders can’t receive prison sentences in California.

However, in most states, first-time offenders are required to pay a fine. So for instance, in Ohio, a parent that fails to comply with the state’s car seat laws will have to pay a $25 to $75 fine, but the penalty for the repeated offense can be three or four times higher.

The state of California doesn’t raise criminal charges for the violations of its Vehicle Code 27360 VC. Still, parents that fail to comply with this law can be issued a ticket that includes a $100 base fine. The actual fine is more expensive because it includes penalty assessment and other fees.

You can get a base fine of $250 for repeating the same violation more than once while ignoring a ticket can be interpreted as a misdemeanor under California’s Vehicle Code 40508. Moreover, all fines include DMV Driving Record points that are reported to the driver’s car insurance company.

The state allows parents to have a point erased from their records by attending the traffic school.

California Car Seat Law Exceptions

Child going into an ambulance

The car seat laws apply to all privately owned vehicles and cabs. So, if you’re planning on riding with Uber or some other cab company, you’ll be responsible for securing your child’s safety seat.

However, the state’s car seat law has several exceptions, which apply under the following circumstances:

  • If a child is transported in an ambulance or other emergency vehicles
  • If a car doesn’t have a backseat
  • If installing a car seat is a safety risk
  • If a court issued an exception because of the child’s preexisting medical condition

Also, a parent doesn’t have to place a child into a front-facing or booster seat if younger children occupy all vehicle’s back seats. Still, the state prohibits the use of front-facing seats on the passenger seat if the vehicle’s airbag system is activated.

Hence, you’ll have to disable your car’s airbag system if your child can’t sit in the back.

Who’s Got Car Seats

Who’s Got Car Seats

The California Office of Traffic Safety was my first stop when I started inquiring about the state’s car seat laws. Its Who’s Got Car Seats directory was established in 1997 with the purpose of assisting low-income families in finding affordable car seats.

The directory can also help you find a Child Passenger Safety Coordinator for your county or locate the nearest car seat inspection point. The directory features hundreds of programs offered by non-profit and governmental institutions that assist parents in meeting California’s car seat requirements.

Depending on the county, low-income families participating in Medi-Cal, AFDC, or similar programs can obtain car seats for free or for a small fee.

Additional Car Seat Resources

Besides the Who’s Got Car Seats directory, California offers a variety of resources young parents like me can use to learn how to install a car seat properly or obtain child passenger safety training.

Fire and Police Stations

Stopping by a local police or fire station and asking about their car seat program is often the easiest way to find an affordable infant or front-facing seat.

Moreover, some stations perform car seat checks without an appointment, and they have programs that enable you to exchange an old car seat for a new one.

CHOC Child Safety Distribution Program

CHOC Child Safety Distribution Program

Orange County residents can attend the Child Passenger Safety course at the CHOC if they want to get familiar with California’s car seat laws. The healthcare system provides the Child Safety Distribution program that enables parents to obtain a car seat for a $30 fee.

California Highway Patrol Car Seat Inspection

You can visit a California High Patrol office if you don’t feel comfortable installing your child’s car seat by yourself. The staff can install or inspect the seat for you without additional charge and connect you with organizations that offer free car seats.

Memorial Care

Memorial Care

The Memorial Care health system’s technicians can inspect the car seat you’re currently using and advise you on how to install it safely.

Car Seat Prices

Like any parent, I want to keep my son safe regardless of how much it would cost me. However, I’m aware that buying a car seat is an expense some families cannot afford. Their prices depend on the seat type and model. So, an infant car seat usually costs around $100, while convertible models cost more than $250.

Prices of booster seats range from less than $50 for backless models to over $300 for high-back models with adjustable headrests.


Question: Does California Require Its Residents to Complete Child Passenger Safety Courses?

Answer: Parents or caretakers aren’t obligated by state law to attend and complete Child Passenger Safety courses, although attending these classes can help keep your child safe.

Question: How Many Car Seats Can I Put in My Car?

Answer: The number of seats you can install depends on your car’s size. Still, installing more than two seats in the same row will take some maneuvering.

Question: Do Car Seats Have Expiry Dates?

Answer: Most models expire after six to ten years. Using an expired car seat isn’t illegal, but it can jeopardize your child’s safety.

Final Thoughts

As a young parent, I understand how much learning you must do to ensure your child is safe and comfortable. However, California’s car seat laws are simple as they mandate the use of best practices that protect a child in case of an accident. So, according to State law, for the first 24 months, your child has to be in the back-facing position. I don’t recommend rushing a child into a front-facing seat, especially if its height and weight are still under the state’s limits.

In case you cannot afford an infant car seat, you should seek assistance at a local fire or police station, as they can help you apply for a free car seat.

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