I know that there are a lot of threads asking for advice on getting three car seats in the back seat, but I don't have the energy to search them. Please bear with me.
We have two kids and one on the way. Our girls are 4.5 and 2. We'd like to avoid having a van if possible, but it may be inevitable that one of us gets a van. I'd still like to have three car seats in both of our cars, however. During the last few weeks, we've had terrible car luck (an accident and a theft) and in the process, car seats have been moved around or have not been in one or the other car for a day or so. Add to the car trouble sick girls who needed to be taken out of daycare and taken to Grandma's, and not having both sets of car seats in both cars really made it difficult. I don't want to have to have two vans in order to retain the same transport flexibility we have now.
HOWEVER, my husband doesn't believe that three across is safe. We've done very little research, me more than him, but he's highly skeptical. He wonders if it's safe for the car sets to touch. How close to the doors is safe? What about the fact that the back seat is contoured, rather than flat? Our better car is a '96 Subaru Legacy - no latch system.
No matter what happens, we may need a few new seats. Two or three of them are approaching 5 years old (isn't that the expiration date?).
What can you tell me about the safety of three across? Can you point me to resources on this? Can you recommend brands of car seat that might fit?
Assuming the seats are installed correctly 3-across is perfectly safe. The trick is getting seats that are installed right :) I've never had to do it personally, though a couple times I thought I might have to. I have had 2 seats & an adult in the back of my civic before though - *THAT* was tight!!
As I recall, in a 3-across situation you are generally looking for the skinniest seats you can find. As I recally that generally includes Radian's, turbo boosters, combi coccoro's, etc. Good luck!!
I'm in a similar situation with a 3rd LO due at the end of the year, and we're trying to fit 3 across in our '07 Prius. So far, what I've gleaned is that to fit 3 across, you will almost always have to use the belts instead of LATCH anyway, so don't worry about not having LATCH. I'm trying to figure out the whole "leveling the hills and valleys" of our back seat, too. :/
I'm finding that I've had to look up a LOT of the lingo, and haven't found too terrible much information yet, but here's a 37-page thread about fitting 3 across http://www.car-seat.org/showthread.php?t=33226. The website seems to have decent searchability, but I just think I haven't found the right lingo/keywords yet to answer my questions.
I have a 7yo in a high back booster, 4yo in a Radian 65, and everything fits best with a bucket seat instead of the convertible seat. The convertible might work when DS2 moves into his own high back booster, but we'll see. We really would rather keep me in the Prius and save gas by having DH drive the van to work (close to home). Plus, I much prefer driving a small car to driving a big van! :P
ETA: I found out that you can't put ANYTHING under a carseat--that doing so compromises the safety. The only exception is the towel/pool noodle in the crease of the seat to help recline a RFing carseat if the manufacturer allows it.
Expiration dates vary by car seat. Most car seats have an expiration of 6 years. A few are 5. Several are 7 or 8. You need to check the actual manufacturing date of each of your car seats and figure it out from there; most car seats have the expiration stamped on it but it's often difficult to locate.
Any car seats that were involved in the car accident you mentioned probably need to be replaced. Check with insurance to see whether they're covered.
It would help to know what car seats you currently own (that aren't crashed), what their expiration dates are, and the heights and weights of your children.
It is perfectly fine for car seats to touch each other and to touch the doors of the vehicle. What you don't want is to have the car seats squished together in such a way that they only seem tight because they're wedged in; each car seat must be securely installed with the vehicle belt so that if you remove another car seat you don't suddenly have a loose seat. You also don't want to have the seats pinched between the vehicle doors; if you have to slam the doors to get them shut and the car seats bend, indent, or crack under the pressure, you need to figure something else out.
Volvo sells a booster seat with adjustable back that works with any 3-point seat belt. Around $200; cheaper than getting a minivan. Just found out about this last week, thought I'd mention it for what it's worth. Also, my 2012 Golf has a back row with a completely flat seating surface: Bliss! Accommodates the cello very nicely. Hopefully carmakers will start going away from those silly contoured back seats.