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A friend of mine cringes every time he sees parents pulling away in their cars from the nearby preschool. Over and over they drive off with the children unrestrained in their car or pick up truck. “Don’t these parents realize that their child becomes a 300- to 400-pound missile in a 30 mph accident?!” he rants. “What’s wrong with these people?!”

Believe it or not, my friend is not over reacting. Though, many parents think, “It’s no big deal, we’re only going across town,” the majority of accidents occur within 5 miles of home. And, my friend is right, even a low-speed accident is deadly for unrestrained children. Every year, more than 90,000 children under age 8 are injured in car crashes, and more than 1,000 are killed. In fact, auto accidents are by far the leading cause of death for American children.

The heartbreak of losing a child is unimaginable; just imagine adding to that the realization that your child’s injury or death is your own fault. These are the feelings of parents like Michael Pagelsdorf, Jr., whose 14-month-old daughter Kaylie was killed when their Nissan Pathfinder rear-ended another car. The news coverage of the Kauai accident showed video that demonstrates the lethal danger in which so many parents unwittingly put their children.

Many parents believe that they can keep children safe holding them on their laps. But would you believe that you could hang on to your fridge in an accident? That’s what the weight of your child becomes in even a slow-speed accident.

A British group ran a Think Before You Drive campaign to alert parents of these dangers. Their fact file reported:

  • Children aged under four are ten times more likely to be killed in a car accident if unrestrained.
  • 90% of injuries could be avoided if child restraints are used correctly. An accident at only 5mph can kill an unrestrained child.
  • In a 30 mph crash, an unrestrained child can be thrown forward with a force 30 to 60 times their body weight.
  • Unrestrained children are much more likely to be ejected through the car window in the event of an accident.
  • Drivers should never place a rearward facing child seat where a front airbag is active.

BabyCenter, the Web’s #1 global interactive parenting network, ran a pertinent article Car seat safety: The biggest mistakes parents make, and how to avoid them Key things to watch out for include:

Not using a safety seat consistently

"We were only going to the grocery store …" "He hates to ride in his car seat, so just this once I didn’t make him …" "She was having a meltdown, so I took her out of her seat for a minute to calm her down." Safety experts hear these words all too often from distraught parents after tragedy has struck. Remember, a one-time lapse can result in a lifetime of regret.

In any case, using a safety seat consistently and correctly is the law. All 50 states require that children up to 3 years of age (or 40 inches tall in Kentucky) ride in car seats in private vehicles, and many have laws requiring car seats or booster seats until a child is considerably older.

Using an old or secondhand seat

That safety seat you scored at a garage sale for a fraction of its original price may seem like a bargain, but it could cost your child his life. The same goes for that older-model seat your sister gave you after her child outgrew it.

Not only are used seats unlikely to come with the manufacturer’s instructions (vital for correct installation), but they could be missing important parts, have been involved in an accident (even unseen damage can affect the seat’s functioning), fall short of current safety standards, or have been recalled due to faulty design. Moreover, plastic gets brittle as it gets older, so a seat that’s too old could break in a crash.

If you must use a secondhand seat, make sure it has the original instructions (or contact the manufacturer for a replacement copy), has all its parts (check the manual), has never been involved in a serious accident, and hasn’t been recalled. (Check your seat’s recall status here.)

Turning your child to face forward too soon

Children have large heads and comparatively weak necks, so in a head-on collision (the most common type of crash) a child’s head can jerk forward suddenly and violently, resulting in spinal injuries. For this reason, keep your child rear-facing position as long as possible. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says to keep your child in a rear-facing car seat until the age of 2, or until he reaches the seat’s maximum rear-facing height and weight limits.

Moving your child out of his car seat or booster too soon

Many parents do not know how to select a proper child safety seat. Though safety-seat laws vary from state to state, all require that children under age 3 ride in a safety seat. Experts are unequivocal in their recommendations for safe riding beyond that age:

  • Your child should ride in a safety seat with a five-point harness until he weighs at least 40 pounds, or until his shoulders no longer fit under the harness straps. You can use a convertible rear- and forward-facing car seat until your child hits 40 pounds, or the harness system of a car-and-booster-seat combo from as little as 20 pounds up to 40 pounds.
  • Your child should ride in a booster seat from the time he weighs 40 pounds and is at least 3 years old until he’s 4 feet 9 inches tall and at least 8 years old.

Not installing a safety seat correctly

Most parents do not know how to install a child car seat. A staggering 3 out of 4 (75%) of child seats are not used correctly.

A safety seat won’t do its job if it’s not installed correctly. Among the most common mistakes: Not buckling the car seat in tightly enough, and not using the right type of seat belt to secure your child in his booster seat. Check to be sure that car seats don’t tip forward or slide from side to side more than an inch, and that boosters are secured with a lap-and-shoulder belt.

Better yet, use an anchoring system if you can. By law, all car seats and vehicles manufactured since September 2002 must be compatible with the LATCH system — or "lower anchors and tethers for children."

This system combines the previously existing top tethers with lower anchors, built into the rear of the car. Some cars built between 1999 and 2002 also have the system. Toddler/booster combo seats are required to have both the upper and lower attachments; booster seats are not required to work with LATCH.

You can also have your seat installation checked by a professional. Find a child seat safety inspection station near you.

Not securing your child in the seat

To make sure the car seat harness straps are snug enough to hold your child firmly in the event of an accident:

  • Buckle your child in, making sure the harness straps aren’t twisted, and then use the mechanism on the front of the car seat to pull the harness tight. You shouldn’t be able to pinch any harness fabric between your fingers.
  • Slide the plastic retainer clip that holds the two straps together up to armpit level before securing it. If the clip is too low, your child could be ejected from his seat in a crash.

Not buckling a car seat into the car

Believe it or not, many parents who are cited for car seat violations have their child buckled into a car seat — but have not buckled the car seat to the car. This may be the result of confusion about how the seats work or just of switching a seat from one car to another on a hectic morning. To avoid this mistake, when you’re putting your child in his seat, double-check to be sure that the seat is buckled tightly to the car.

Holding your child on your lap

It’s tempting to lift your child out of the car seat and hold him in your arms when he’s having a tantrum after hours on the road, or when you’re making a quick dash from one place to another with a gaggle of friends and it’s easier for everyone to pile into the same vehicle than to take separate cars.

This might seem safe enough. After all, you’d hold your child tight if anything happened, right? But the truth is that even if you’re belted in, your child could be ripped from your arms by the force of a collision. And if you manage to get the seat belt around both of you, your weight could actually crush your child to death.

So as much as your child may scream — and as inconvenient as taking your own car is when the two of you could just hop into someone else’s — never let your child ride in a moving car unless he’s safely strapped into an age-appropriate, correctly installed car seat or booster.

Letting two kids share one seat belt

Don’t do it. Crash tests have shown that when two children ride buckled into one seat belt, in an accident their heads can knock together with potentially fatal force.

Letting your child ride in the front seat

Although your child may whine and plead to ride in the front seat with you, the backseat is by far the safest place for him. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends that all children under age 13 ride in the backseat every time they get in the car.

Now most parents want to do the right thing for their children and definitely would never want to see them injured. But it is easy to minimize the risk and it is sometimes hard to deal with one’s child throwing a fit about getting into or staying in a car seat. Though different things work with different children, BabyCenter does give some recommendations. But a screaming child is the least of one’s worries.

Unrestrained children are four times more likely to die during a car crash. And unrestrained passengers are far more likely to injure restrained passengers during a crash, by becoming projectile-like within the vehicle compartment. Injuries such as spinal cord injury, whiplash, seat-belt syndrome, closed-head injury and post-traumatic stress syndrome are common. Studies support that unrestrained child passengers sustain more serious injury then restrained child passengers. Unrestrained child passengers tend to sustain injury to the head, neck, face, chest and extremities with complex injury patterns. Improperly restrained child passengers, especially the 4 – 9 year old group, tend to sustain abdominal and extremity injuries, including ruptured stomach, lacerated or ruptured spleen and ruptured or contusion of the bowels.

Our children are our most precious cargo. However, many times the child car seats we entrust to protect them are confusing or counter-intuitive. There is something wrong with a product that is mis-used 3 out of 4 times. Car seat manufacturers should do more to ensure that car seats are selected, installed and used correctly.

So my friend’s anguish and emotional rants are well-founded. The preschool parents may simply not know or understand the jeopardy that the family faces with that little act. But car seat manufacturers do.

[More are Child Car Seat Safety]

(c) Copyright 2011 Brett A. Emison

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