The leading cause of death for children ages 2 to 14 is car accidents, but proper use of car seats and booster seats can reduce the risk of injury and death by as much as 71 percent, according to the the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Still, the seats only make a difference when they are used correctly. And that rarely happens, according to a 2002 study by the National Safe Kids Campaign. The Washington-based nonprofit organization found that more than 81 percent of child safety seats are used incorrectly or are ineffective because the seats are incompatible with the child’s size or with the car.
These 10 tips can help keep your child safe inside the car:
1 Shop by weight. Children’s Memorial Hospital has strict guidelines for choosing a seat. For the first year or up to 22 pounds, use an infant-only rear-facing seat in the the back seat to avoid neck and muscle injuries. Harness straps should be below shoulder level. For toddlers older than 1 and between 20 and 40 pounds, use a forward-facing car seat with harness straps at or above the shoulders. Children between 40 and 80 pounds should use a forward-facing booster seat with a lap and a shoulder belt. The lap belt should fit low and tight across the upper thigh area, and the shoulder belt should fit snugly across the chest and shoulder.
2 Strive for car compatibility. Once the seat is installed, there should be less that one inch of movement from side to side or front to back, says Toni Frank, community educator in the injury prevention program at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.There should be one finger’s width between the child’s collarbone and the shoulder strap. Finally, make sure the front seats of the car are not pressing against the car seat.
3 Babies belong in the back. Under no circumstances should a child under 12 be sitting in the front seat of the car, even if the child is secured in a safety seat. Front seat air bags are too powerful for children. If they deploy, they can be dangerous, even deadly, for a child.
4 Check the label. Car seats that meet federal safety standards carry a sticker showing that the seat has been tested for safety in a 30-mile-per-hour crash. Don’t buy a seat that doesn’t have a sticker.
5 Test-drive the car seat. Many stores allow parents to test the safety seat in their car before they buy. Even if the seat fits the child, it may not fit the car, Frank says. “One of the major causes for misuse is that sometimes you simply can’t get the car seat into the car because of lack of compatibility. Sometimes the car isn’t appropriate,” she says. Parents should ask the store if someone would help figure out which car seat is compatible with the car.
6 Don’t share. Although it’s tempting to use one seat for all siblings, it is critical to replace car seats after six years of use.
And don’t give it away, throw it away. Since car seats stay in the car during the winter and summer, they are subject to weather-related stress, and can contract and expand, changing the fit of the seat, Frank says.
Safety seats are most successful when they are the exact shape and size they were when they were first purchased.
7 Buy new, not used. Weather-related stress and wear is just one of the potential problems of a used car seat, says Amy Hill, project manager for the Injury Free Coalition at Children’s Memorial Hospital. Safety seats don’t work as well and sometimes not at all, after they’ve been in a car accident.
So it’s important to know the history of a car seat, and a stranger trying to sell a seat is not a reliable source, Hill says. “I did a safety check for someone who had a seat they got from a garage sale, and parts were missing. You don’t always know what’s missing unless you know the people you’re getting it from.”
She recommends parents buy new car seats for their children if they can afford it. If you must buy a used car seat, ask for the owner’s manual to make sure you have properly installed the seat in the car.
8 Crashes kill car seats. If the car is in an accident, throw it away. The seat may have changed shape slightly, which could be very dangerous for the child if the car is in another accident.
9 Resist accessorizing. It’s always fun to accessorize, especially when you have a new baby, but the car seat is one place where this could be deadly, Hill says. The head rests and dangly mobile units that are sold separately are not crash tested and could hurt the child in an accident. Only use the headrest or the extras if they come with the seat because the seat as a whole is tested, she says.
10 Get tested. Lots of experts are available to offer individual advice to parents worried about whether their child’s car seats will do what it’s supposed to do: Keep the child safe in an accident.
Visit www.seatcheck.net for a list of locations that will do car seat and booster seat checks for free or for a nominal charge. Just bring your car, your child and the car seat and they will do the rest.
Danielle Braff is a writer who lives in Chicago with her cat, Trevor.