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Is Your Child's Car Seat Safe?

Laura King of Lewisville, TX, never felt completely sure that she and her husband had correctly installed their son's first infant car seat. So when Geren started to outgrow it at around 6 months, King stopped by her car dealership's free child-seat inspection service for advice. The technician showed her how the car seat's loose installation could prove deadly in a crash, and he urged her to buy a convertible model that would let her keep Geren rear-facing until at least his first birthday. A few days later, she bought one and the technician installed it for her. "It took two big men, one sitting on the seat and the other pushing and pulling, to get it in right," recalls King.

Good timing: A month later, a driver ran a red light at an intersection and crashed into her minivan, which was badly damaged. But Geren stayed safe. King shudders to think what could have happened if she hadn't gotten the car seat installed correctly.

PARENTING contributing editor Jessica Snyder Sachs' 10-year-old daughter, Eva, still rides in a booster seat.

Fooling Ourselves

Is your child's car seat secure? Chances are it's not: Most infants and children in this country ride without adequate protection, say experts; even though 96 percent of parents believe they always buckle kids up properly, only one in seven actually gets it right, inspections show.

Such mistakes can have terrible consequences: Of the more than 1.5 million children involved in car crashes each year in the U.S., more than 2,000 die and more than 30,000 are seriously injured. Motor-vehicle accidents remain the number one cause of fatalities among kids.

"All it takes is a split second for an errand, a car pool, or a family outing to turn into a tragedy," says pediatrician Flaura Koplin Winston, M.D., director of TraumaLink, a pediatric injury research center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "Nearly half of crashes involving children occur within seven minutes of home."

Don't think you can rely on state regulations for guidance -- the vast majority fall far short of federal and professional recommendations despite recent and continuing improvements.

If you're about to buy a new car, you're in luck: As of September 2002, all new cars and safety seats must use the new LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system, which allows for more secure installation: The car seat has an anchor that hooks (or clamps) onto two rods (or bars) behind the seat cushion, and an upper tether that secures the top, reducing whiplash and the risk of head injury. For the rest of us, free car-seat inspection stations are now found in virtually all large communities. But you'll still need to buy the right car seat for your child -- and use it correctly.

Avoiding the Big Mistakes

The first rule: Try it out. Buy one and attempt to install it according to the manual -- that's the best way to make sure it's compatible with your car, says Stephanie Tombrello, executive director of SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A., a nonprofit organization sponsored by insurance and auto companies and the Los Angeles County Health Department. "Most stores will allow you to return a child seat that doesn't fit your car model," she says.

Once you buy a seat, secure it in the center of the vehicle's backseat if possible; it's not only the safest place for your child, but you'll also reduce the strain on your back if you can sit in the backseat next to him as you put him in or lift him out of the seat. Have a trained technician show you how to do it correctly for free at an inspection center.

Of course, if you have more than one child, they can't all sit in the middle of the backseat, and some smaller cars don't have belts located there. Ironically, if your car has the LATCH system, there are no anchors in the middle of the seat (although there is a tether), so you'd need to use the regular safety belt to attach it -- or move the seat to the left or the right side of the backseat. In any of these cases, your best bet is to ask the inspection-center expert about the best place to install your car seat.

When putting the seat in, use the two most important tools at your disposal: the instruction booklet and your vehicle owner's manual, says Barb Matejka, certified child passenger-safety technician for Park Jeep, in Burnsville, MN. The most common mistake inspectors see is looseness, both in how seats are installed in vehicles and in how children are buckled into their harnesses. When properly installed, a seat shouldn't budge more than an inch to the side or front -- it might take one or two adults pushing hard to make sure the seat is in tightly. When your child is actually in the seat, you shouldn't be able to pinch even a small fold of the harness's straps between your fingers.

Another commonly made mistake: letting a child graduate too soon from a rear-facing to a front-facing seat, then into an adult seat belt without a booster. "Don't think of it as a graduation but as a demotion in safety," says Tombrello. If you skip the booster seat or allow your child to move out of it too soon, the seat belt can cut into your child's abdomen in a crash, causing life-threatening injuries to internal organs and the spine. Similarly, slipping the shoulder belt behind your child's back or under his arm can also lead to serious injury, including head trauma -- he could jackknife over the lap belt.

"The idea is to keep children at each level of protection -- rear-facing infant seat, front-facing car seat, and booster -- for as long as they fit," says Tombrello.

Moving On Up

A child is ready to use an adult seat belt safely when he can pass the following five-point test: He can sit all the way back against the seat; his knees bend comfortably over the edge of the vehicle's seat; the lap belt passes over the top of his thighs (not his abdomen); the shoulder belt crosses over his chest and shoulder; and he can sit like this for the entire trip.

Even then, it's best to keep your child sitting in the backseat until he's old enough to drive -- or at the very least, until age 13. "You lose a third of your protection just by moving to the front seat," says Tombrello.

Since American car manufacturers first introduced child safety seats in the late 1960s, they've saved thousands of children's lives. But we can do even better. One danger lies in the "little" exceptions: leaving a child unbuckled for a drive around the block or allowing him to ride without a booster in a friend's car. "The parents who have the easiest time are those who consider safety a non-negotiable issue," says Tombrello. "The car doesn't start until everyone's buckled in safely."

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