“If I could control everything," says AAA Traffic Safety Assistant Melanie Gilmour, "I'd make everyone understand how important it is not just to use child safety seats but to use them correctly." Gilmour, who is a child passenger technician instructor certified by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), says studies have shown that misuse runs at about 85 percent. Incorrectly installed seats are especially common.
Child safety seats are now required in all 50 states. That's because they are extremely effective in saving lives and preventing injuries-when they're used correctly. "The first step in getting it right," Gilmour says, "is choosing the right seat."
Selecting a seat
- Federal standards. All new child safety seats offered for sale must pass crash tests and meet federal standards. The seat should have a label stating that it meets these requirements.
- Size. Be sure the seat is appropriate for the age, height, and weight of the child. Labeling on the seat will tell you what age and size child the seat is meant for.
- Get a seat that fits your car. It's best before buying to bring the seat to your car to make sure it fits.
- Used seats. Don't buy a used seat. Seats have been improved over the years; testing standards have changed. A recall may have been issued for a used seat and you would have no way of knowing whether the problem with yours had been corrected. Seat components can age and lose strength. Hidden crash damage can severely weaken a seat.
- Recalls. Once you've bought a seat, be sure to complete and return the registration card. This allows the manufacturer to contact you if there's a recall.
California law takes the unusual step of making misuse of a seat illegal. This means it must be installed properly and the child must be properly strapped into it.
Installation isn't necessarily simple. According to Gilmour, "You can install the seat properly yourself-if you're lucky. There's more to it than most people realize, so most seats are installed incorrectly. Just simple things could cause death in an accident, things like having the straps on the wrong setting or the chest clip in the wrong position."
- Read and follow the directions. All new seats include installation instructions. Your vehicle's owner manual can also be helpful.
- Ask someone who knows. Many local boards of health can put you in contact with a safety seat specialist who can help you install the seat or inspect the job you did.
Using the seat: suggestions from NHTSA
- Children 12 and under should ride in the car's backseat. It's the safest place because head-on crashes are the most common kind and because passenger-side air bags can kill or injure young children.
- If your car has a passenger-side air bag, it is especially important to have your child in the backseat. "In almost all cases in which an infant died," NHTSA warns, "the baby was riding in a rear-facing safety seat in the front passenger seat. The back of the safety seat was so close to the dashboard that the air bag hit the safety seat with tremendous force."
- Infants should face the rear of the car, even when in the backseat. Both NHTSA and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend you have infants facing the rear until they're at least a year old and weigh 20 pounds.
- Although California's relatively strict law requires children 4 years and younger and weighing 40 pounds or less to be in a safety seat, lap and shoulder belts commonly found in cars usually don't fit properly until a person is about 4 feet 9 inches tall and weighs about 80 pounds. Use a booster car seat to raise a child high enough so lap and shoulder belts fit properly.
- The NHTSA Web site (www.nhtsa.gov) offers a vast amount of information on many aspects of car safety, including a thorough section on child safety seats that includes recall notices.
- The National Safe Kids Campaign says its mission is "to prevent the number one killer of children-unintentional injury." Visit its Web site, www.safekids.org, for a lot of information valuable to anyone with children.
- AAA can send you a brochure with information on car seat selection and use. Write to AAA Traffic Safety Department, 150 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94102.
This article was first published in March 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.