Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Carseat Conundrum

Are they buckled up, straightjacket tight?

By Margaret Renkl

APRIL 5, 1999:  You're a good parent. You know the rules. Even if your kid is kicking, screaming, and clawing great gashes in your hands and cheeks, you buckle her into a child safety seat, whether you're driving 500 miles or just two blocks. You understand that, like everything else in parenthood, this is no guarantee your child will grow up safe and strong, but it's a better bet than doing what our parents did, letting the baby ride shotgun in Mom's lap. A kid who's buckled up is safer than a kid who isn't, right?

Not always. It depends on whether the child is properly installed in the seat, and on whether the seat is properly installed in the car. Many car seats have straps to tighten every time you load the kid in. If they are too loose, the child could be ejected from the seat in a crash. Even a child strapped in correctly is in danger if the safety seat itself is too loosely anchored to the car, used with an incompatible seat belt system, or placed in front of an airbag. According to the U.S. Transportation Department, some 350 preschool children died in 1995 because their car seats were installed incorrectly. That's more than the 279 children the same year who survived crashes because their seats were fine.

I don't know about you, but I can't imagine any realization much worse than knowing a child's death was no one's fault and yet was completely preventable. I'm not talking here about the hundreds of children every year who die in auto collisions because they're riding unrestrained; their parents ought to be prosecuted for criminal negligence. But when 350 children die in one year because their car seats were improperly installed, it's almost certainly not because their parents were being stupid or careless. Those parents did all the right things to protect their kids. They just did the right things all wrong.

The problem is that with child safety seats, it's too easy to do things wrong. Recently, President Clinton announced new federal rules to make child car seats safer and less confusing to install. By the end of the year, a standardized three-point anchoring system will be in all new cars and light trucks. But since not every American parent is going to buy a new car this fall, the National Transportation Safety Board wants Clinton to go even further and create a nationwide network of installation stations, possibly at already existing vehicle inspections sites, where parents can get an expert to install their child's car seat.

Currently, according to U.S. government statistics, 70 percent of child safety seats are incorrectly installed. The National Safe Kids Coalition says it's worse than that: In the more than 800 safety-seat checkup events the group has sponsored in the past two years, 87 percent of the seats its volunteers checked were improperly installed.

I first read these reports with a certain amount of smugness, I admit. I'm a vigilant mother by nature and a relatively well-informed mother by circumstance--I make my living writing about child-rearing issues, so I have no choice but to keep up with the latest studies and recommendations. Yet when I went out after President Clinton's address to double-check the car seat installation in my own van, I found to my shock that both seats were positioned incorrectly. Not massively incorrectly, but still wrong enough to cause a serious compromise of the seat's safety in a collision. The precious children I've been buckling up so carefully all this time would have been little more protected from injury than if I'd let them crawl around, bouncing from seat to seat the way our own parents let us.

I was especially alarmed because the two seats in my minivan were brand new. After reading recently that child seats more than seven years old are unlikely to meet current federal safety standards, I threw out the hand-me-downs we'd been using since our first son was born. I shopped at four different stores before I found the seat I was looking for (the one recommended by Consumer Reports). I even called the manufacturer's 1-800 number to make sure I truly understood the installation instructions. Still, my children's car seats failed the test.

On the assumption that there are other good-intentioned parents in the same boat, I interrupt this normally self-indulgent column to pass on a few of the latest car seat recommendations:


Big people sit in front. Small people sit in back. Period. Make it a rule, no matter how much your kids wheedle to join you up front, and no matter how violently they annoy each other when they're sitting side-by-side in back. The safest place in the car is the back seat, regardless of whether the passenger side of your front seat has an air bag. If it does, however, and you install your safety seat there anyway, you're playing Russian roulette with only one chamber empty.


Never use a car seat before you read the instructions. Car seats are frequently incompatible with the seat belt systems in cars. The only way to know if the seat you've selected works with the car you drive is to read the manuals that come with each. This is no easy task, unfortunately, thanks to the Neanderthal literacy level of most technical writers, but do the best you can with the books. Then call the 1-800 number in each to clear up any confusion.


If the auto manufacturer says you need to use a locking clip to secure the seat to the car, use one. If you don't, the seat is worthless in an impact. Worthless.


Allow no more than one inch of play once the seat is buckled in. If you push or tug on the seat and it moves more than an inch in any direction, your child could end up with massive head and neck injuries. In a crash, that seat is going to be propelled forward at high speed before the seat belt engages and snaps it back against the seat at speeds that could literally break a child's neck. To attach the seat as tightly as possible, sit in it yourself, pushing against the front seat with your feet and pressing your butt back and down as hard as you can, all while pulling the seat belt tight. (You might want to protect your dignity by making sure your neighbors aren't home when you attempt this maneuver.)


Be sure the seat fits the child. Infants younger than one year should ride facing the rear (see previous reference to whiplash injuries), but most rear-facing infant seats fit only children weighing 20 pounds or less. If your baby outgrows the infant seat before he or she is a year old, you'll have to buy a convertible seat--one that converts from a rear-facing infant seat to a forward-facing toddler seat. Same deal with toddlers: Once a kid weighs 40 pounds, take him or her out of the convertible seat and invest in a booster seat, preferably one that threads the shoulder harness of the seat belt to a safe position across the child's chest. Good convertible and booster seats cost $100 or more, but that's a bargain when you consider mortuary costs.


Don't give in to peer pressure. Safety experts now recommend keeping kids in booster seats until they weigh 80 pounds, but try telling that to a skinny kindergartner convinced you're making him look like a baby to his friends at school. At my house, we compromised with a seat belt adjuster designed to make a standard seat belt fit a 50-pound kid, but I'm rethinking that decision in light of the new studies. My big boy's not going to like it, but I'm about to get that booster seat out of the attic.


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