With the exception of seatbelts, fewer products have done so much so fast as child car seats in the category of transportation safety. But as a recent story in the New York Times explains, improper installation of the tiny chairs is common, and seriously compromises the restraint’s ability to protect the child.
What should be a fairly simple operation can be devilishly complicated. One father in The Times story spent more than two hours trying to secure his kids’ car seats. He wasn’t sure he’d done it right, so he went to a local fire rescue unit that helps parents install seats and found out he’d done it wrong. And he’s a research scientist with a Ph.D.
Approximately 3 in 4 car seats are installed improperly, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). And in communities without education programs or places to check installation, that ratio is higher.
Automobile crashes are a leading cause of death for children 13 and younger; many fatalities involve children in car seats.
Although deaths of children in car seats declined from 614 in 2002 to 397 in 2011, according to The Times, the numbers could be even lower if car seats were easier to install.
It’s not as if people haven’t tried to simply the process. In 2000, NHTSA implemented a latch system to enable car seats to be secured to anchors in a vehicle’s seats instead of looping a seat belt through the car seat. Automakers were required to design cars to facilitate easier kid-seat installation.
Still, many parents use only seat belts to secure the car seats, Times’ sources said.
One explained that, in a collision, a car seat can move much farther forward if it is installed using only a seat belt and the top of the seat is not secured. That presents a much higher likelihood of the child incurring head or spine injuries.
To address the car-seat information gap, the feds are developing a new program to encourage automakers to recommend the most appropriate child seats for use in each of their models. Regulators hope parents will choose the type of seat — rear-facing, forward-facing or booster — that works best for their children, based on age and size.
But car seat manufacturers don’t work closely with a lot with automakers, largely because the car people don’t like to divulge their future designs. The automakers say they offer as wide a range of child restraint systems as possible.
Safety advocates point to constant vehicle redesign as a primary challenge to routine, proper installation of car seats. They recommend parents seek help from local safety programs and car-seat specialists.
To find one in your area, link to Safe Kids Worldwide. To learn more about specific products, link to the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association. For general car-seat safety and installation information, link to the Car Seat Lady, a group headed by a New York pediatrician.