The biggest car safety mistakes parents make -- and how to avoid them
By Melanie Haiken
"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 ..." "He was having a meltdown, so I took him out of his seat for a minute to calm him down ... " Safety experts say they hear these words all too often from distraught parents after tragedy has struck. Remember, a one-time-only lapse can result in a lifetime of regret. Each year, nearly 250,000 children suffer serious injuries in car crashes, and more than 1,600 die. In fact, auto accidents are the leading cause of death in children over age 3. But car seats and booster seats could prevent many of these tragedies. Consistent and correct use of safety seats, for instance, reduces the risk of death in a serious collision by more than 70 percent. Stephanie Tombrello, executive director of the nonprofit passenger safety organization SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A., urges all parents to get a safety seat that's convenient to use, and to make buckling your child into it such a habit that you don't even have to think about it.
Using an old or secondhand seat
That safety seat you scored at a garage sale or secondhand store for a fraction of its original cost may seem like a bargain, but it could cost your child his life. The same goes for an older-model seat given to you by a friend or a relative when 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. To make sure your child's seat is safe, fill out the registration card when you buy a new car seat or booster seat, and mail it in so the manufacturer can notify you in case of a recall.
If you must use a secondhand seat, make sure it has the original instructions (if not, contact the manufacturer for a replacement copy), has all its parts (check the manual), has never been involved in an accident, is no more than two years old, and hasn't been recalled (click here to check a seat's recall status).
Facing your child 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. Just be sure that he rides in a rear-facing seat specially designed to hold children weighing up to 35 pounds or a convertible car seat that's made to hold children weighing up to 35 pounds in a rear-facing position or up to 40 pounds in a forward-facing position. (Note: The 12-months-and-20-pounds rule that many parents cite when turning their child forward in the car is actually the minimum size and age requirement.)
Though safety-seat laws vary from state to state, experts are unequivocal in their recommendations for safe riding:
• 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 your child's safety seat correctly
Your child's safety seat won't do the job it's intended to 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. So before you so much as back out of the driveway, check to see that the seat doesn't tip forward or slide from side to side more than an inch, and make sure that your child's booster is secured with a lap-and-shoulder belt.
Better yet, use the new anchoring system if you can. Since 1999, federal regulation has required most new forward-facing car seats to come with a top tether that snaps into a corresponding anchor in your car, making installation easier and more secure. But because most pre-1999 vehicles don't have the anchoring system, owners of those models may want to consider having their car retrofitted with the anchor system (check with your local auto dealership for information on cost and feasibility).
Since September 2002, all new car seats and vehicles must be compatible with the LATCH system, short for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (combining 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 have LATCH.
Not using a locking clip or using it incorrectly
If your car is a pre-1996 model, chances are the lap-and-shoulder belts don't lock unless you come to a sudden stop. This means you need a locking clip — a small metal device that looks like an oversized paper clip — to hold the seat belt (and thus your child's car seat) tight in the event of a crash. After you buckle your child's seat tightly in place, see if you can move it more than an inch toward the front or sides of the car. If so, install the locking clip about a half-inch above the buckle (not on the other side of your child's car seat, holding the shoulder and lap belts together before they're threaded through the appropriate slot in the car seat — a common mistake parents make). If you've misplaced the locking clip that came with your car seat, contact the manufacturer to order a replacement or buy a new one at a store that carries car seats and other safety supplies.
Not securing the seat's harness correctly
You can do all the prep work in the world (shopping for just the right seat for your car and your child, placing it in the safest position in your car, and installing it correctly), but none of that will matter much if you don't buckle your child into the seat securely. 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 should not 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 your child's car seat into the car
Believe it or not, many parents who are cited for car seat violations have a car seat in their car, and have their child buckled into the car seat — but have not buckled the car seat into the car. This may be the result of confusion between car seats with harnesses and booster seats (which have different anchoring systems), or the result of switching a seat from one car to another on a hectic morning. To avoid this common mistake, don't start your engine until you've double-checked that your child is not only safely secured in his car seat, but that the seat is buckled tightly into the car's seat belt system. If your child rides in a booster seat, make sure the car's seat belts are buckled around him before you take off.
Even better, use the new LATCH system to bypass your car's seat belts and attach the car seat or booster seat directly to your car. For more information, see "Not installing your child's safety seat correctly," above.
Holding your child on your lap
When your child is having a tantrum after hours on the road, it's tempting to lift him out of his car seat and hold him in your arms. The same goes when you're just making a quick dash from one locale to another with a gaggle of friends or relatives 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 you can't control what your body might do in a crash. In fact, safety experts warn that even if you're belted in, your child could be ripped from your arms and thrown through the windshield 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 he 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 his car seat or booster. No exceptions.
Letting two kids share one seat belt
This is a big no-no; crash tests have shown that when two children ride buckled into one seat belt, their heads can knock together so hard that it's potentially fatal for both of them.
Letting your child ride in the front seat
Though he may whine and plead to ride in the front seat with you, the back seat is by far the safest place for your child, since that's where he's best protected in a head-on or side-impact collision. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) strongly recommends that all children under age 13 ride in the back seat every time they get in the car. Other tips on safe riding positions:
• If possible, buckle your child into the middle of the back seat, where he's best protected from side-impact collisions. If your child rides in a booster seat and your car has only a lap belt in the center back (which is fine for car seats but should never be used on its own with a booster seat), position your child's booster on either the right or left side of your back seat and buckle him in with the car's lap-and-shoulder belt.
• If you have a passenger air bag in your car, that's all the more reason to keep your child in the back. Though air bags are designed to reduce injuries in adults, they're actually dangerous for children. In fact, in recent years more than a hundred kids have been killed by passenger air bags, which can cause serious head and neck injuries when they inflate, especially to children in rear-facing car seats. To find out whether your car has air bags, look for a warning label on the sun visor or the letters SRS or SIR embossed on the dashboard, or check your vehicle owner's manual.
• If your child must sit in the front seat because that's the only option (if the back seat is already full or if your car is a two-seater, for example), check to see if your car's air bag has an on-off switch, and if so, turn it off. If not, have an air-bag switch installed by a car dealership or one of the specialized companies that have sprung up to deal with this situation (the NHTSA maintains a list of companies that install air bag on-off switches). If you can't disable your passenger air bag, then have the child who's most securely restrained in a front-facing car seat with a full harness (in other words, the child who's least likely to wiggle out of his restraints; or, if your passengers have all moved out of the car seat phase, your biggest or tallest passenger) ride in the front seat, and move his seat as far back from the dashboard as possible.
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