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Buckle Up! The Importance of Child Safety Seats
by Kristi Grigsby
Since my daughter was eighteen months old, she was charged with the responsibility of climbing into her own car seat. I had no choice. My back could no longer withstand the physical requirements of lifting my thirty-pounder into the back seat, then stretching to place her in the car seat. It worked out well, though, since my daughter liked this responsibility. She sat happily in her seat while I buckled her in and adjusted her harness straps when necessary.

But the compliance was short lived. Soon my daughter wanted to do everything herself. And soon thereafter, her limited vocabulary was replaced with phrases like: "NO, I do it myself!" The battle of the car seat had begun. This battle, however, was not one I was willing to lose. So, I formulated my plan of attack and prepared myself to handle her outrage when she learned she would not be allowed to buckle the seat belt herself. I tried to explain to my child in simple terms, "Mommy needs to buckle your seat. I need to make sure you're safe." And I embraced myself for what would inevitably follow: the screaming and crying that only the parent of a frustrated toddler can imagine. But by some small miracle, those things never happened. Somehow she seemed to understand. So once again, we had smooth sailing in the car . . . until recently.

Now my little girl is nearly three and oftentimes as she climbs into her car seat, she continues over her seat and flops down onto the back seat. She reaches for the lap/shoulder harness and stretches it over her little body, struggling to buckle the belt just the way she has seen mommy do it hundreds of times before. All the while, she is trying to convince me that this is where she belongs by assuring me, "I'm a big girl now. I can sit in the BIG seat." And looking at her there, she looks so grown up - so comfortable and content in the seat designed for a much larger passenger. I begin to wonder if she's right. Is she ready to graduate from the safety of her car seat?

I thought to myself, maybe I was being overly protective. Maybe I should loosen up my rules regarding the car seat. But it just didn't feel right. I wasn't prepared to change anything until I had done some research, the results of which I will share with you below. Please understand, however, that the findings below were based upon research conducted in my home state of Florida. Laws and regulations vary from state to state. Visit: http://www.iihs.org/laws/ChildRestraint.aspx for information specific to your state.

To Restrain or Not To Restrain
Florida law requires all children under three years of age to be properly secured in a child restraint device, while riding in a vehicle. Children through age three must be secured in a separate safety seat or a vehicle's integrated safety seat. Children aged 4-5 can be secured with a vehicle safety belt. Drivers are responsible for buckling up the child. The cost to a violator is $60.

The following information is provided by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ("NHTSA"):

Fact: In a 30 m.p.h. crash (which is much slower than most of us drive to the grocery store!), an unrestrained child is thrown forward with a force similar to falling from a three story building.

Fact: Holding a 25 pound child in a 30 m.p.h. crash is like trying to catch a 750 pound block of cement. Holding a child on your lap puts the child in a position to be crushed between you and the dashboard.

Fact: 49% of the children under five years of age that were killed in traffic crashes in 2003 were completely unrestrained. When used and properly installed, child safety seats save lives. The NHTSA estimates that child safety seats reduce the risk of fatal injury by 69% for infants and by 47% for toddlers (ages 1-4).

Selecting and Installing Your Safety Seat
When selecting your safety seat, make certain the seat meets federal safety standards and is compatible with your vehicle. Test it in your vehicle. If you are unable to install the seat securely, call the manufacturer and/or your vehicle manufacturer for assistance. If you continue to have problems, return the seat for a model that is more compatible with your vehicle. Remember: this is not a one-size-fits-all product.

When shopping for a new automobile, take your safety seat with you. If you are unable to install the seat securely, you have two options: 1) you may need to consider a different auto, or 2) be aware that the purchase of a new safety seat (compatible with the vehicle you will be purchasing) may be necessary.

When installing your safety seat, READ YOUR VEHICLE OWNER'S GUIDE and the instructions provided from the safety seat manufacturer carefully. Follow these instructions. A seat improperly installed will not protect your child. Because features of vehicles and safety seats vary greatly, there is no standard instructions regarding installation. However, the NHTSA offers the following tips that apply to all: Children belong in the back seat. All safety seats should be installed in the back.

To work properly, the safety seat must be held tightly with the vehicle's safety belt. To make it tight, push the safety seat down into the seat padding while you tighten the belt around it. Pushing down on it with your knee will help to get a really tight fit.

Test your seat. Pull on the seat and push it hard from side to side. If the belt loosens and lets your safety seat move, your child may not be protected well.

Check that your vehicle seat belt locks. Pull the belt out and let it go back slightly. Then pull it out gently. If it locks, you have a seatbelt that will hold the safety seat tightly. If not, you will need another mechanism that will keep your belt tight, such as a locking clip (refer to your vehicle owner's handbook). If a locking clip is needed, many car dealerships give the clips away for free.

The Chronology of the Safety Seat

Ages 0-1: The Rear Facing Infant (or Convertible) Seat
Most of us know that a newborn should ride in a rear facing infant safety seat. What we may not be aware of is that a baby should ride facing rearward until they are one year old and weigh at least 20 pounds. Even if your six-month-old meets the twenty-pound criteria, the child should remain in a rear facing infant seat until the age of one. According to Barbara Powell, Traffic Safety Specialist at the State of Florida Department of Transportation, the child's neck and spine structure is not developed enough to keep an infant safe in a front facing car seat until around the age of one. Therefore, your child is better protected if he remains in the infant seat. Additional points to remember about a rear facing infant seat are:

  • NEVER place a rear facing infant seat in the front seat or near an airbag.
  • A snug harness is important. In a crash, the shoulder straps hold your baby down in the safety seat.
  • A clip is typically used to keep the straps on your baby's shoulders. Keep the clip at mid chest (armpit) level.
  • To help support the baby's head, the seat should recline somewhat, but not more than a 45 degree angle. If needed, a rolled up towel can be placed under the seat to achieve this recline.
Ages 1-4: The Front Facing Safety Seat
It is often an exciting and much anticipated change to place your child in a front facing seat. A safety seat of this kind will be used for several years - when your child weighs 20-40 pounds and is typically between the ages of 1-4. Tips to remember include:
  • If the seat converts from a reclining infant seat, adjust it to sit upright when it is used facing forward.
  • Again, NEVER place the child in the front seat or near an airbag.
  • Move harness straps to the top-most slots when the seat is faced forward. (The NTHSA recommends the middle setting found on many convertible seats should not be used when the seat faces forward, primarily because the harness straps should be at or above shoulder level when the seat is faced forward). NOTE OF CAUTION: When moving the straps up, be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions carefully. It is important that the straps be threaded and secured correctly in order to provide proper restraint for your child. If done incorrectly, the straps may come loose in a crash and may not protect your child.

When does your child outgrow the safety seat and when is it no longer needed? Typically, this occurs when a child is four, although the following criteria should also be met:
  • When the child is age four and weighs at least 40 pounds.
  • When the safety seat's harness is too short when fully extended.
  • When the child's ears reach the top of the safety seat.
  • When these criteria are met, your child is ready to move to a car booster seat, or a vehicle safety belt that fits well.

Ages 4+ (and 40 pounds+): The Booster Seat
The NHTSA recommends children use a booster seat instead of the auto's safety belt for the following reasons:

  • Most 40 pound children are not tall enough for a combination lap and shoulder belt to fit properly.
  • Many young children will not sit still enough to keep lap belts low on their hips. Belts that ride up on their tummies can be hazardous.
  • Boosters are comfortable for children because they allow their legs to bend normally. In addition, they enable the child to gain a better view out the window.
There are primarily three types of acceptable booster seats:
  1. 1. A booster without a shield is used with a vehicle's lap/shoulder belt. Because raising the child up in the booster seat improves the belt's fit, they are called "belt-positioning" boosters. These give better protection than boosters with shields.

  2. 2. A booster seat with a high back rest. A child's head should be supported by the seat back of the vehicle. If the tops of the child's ears extend above the seat back, a booster with a high back should be used to protect the child's neck.

  3. 3. Realize that a seat with a lap belt only is not safe. However, when this is the only alternative, a forward-facing seat designed to restrain/harness over 40 lbs is recommended - ideally with an internal harness such as the Britax Super Elite, or a supplemental harness such as those produced by EZ-on Products (ezonpro.com).

Note: Booster seats with shields are no longer recommended by most safety professionals. Note also that the intent of this article is not to recommend one specific car seat or booster. Rather, the intent is to provide the reader with information to make an educated choice. Many law enforcement agencies have public education departments who will gladly help you make that choice to help ensure the safest seat for your child.

How long should a booster seat be used? The simple answer is, until the vehicle belt fits properly. According to the NHTSA, usually kids over 80 pounds and eight years old can fit correctly in a vehicle's lap/shoulder belt. Try the belt on from time to time as your child grows taller. Keeping the belt snug, the lap belt should fit low on the hips and over the child's upper thighs. The shoulder belt should cross (and remain on) the shoulder, close to the chest. NEVER put a shoulder belt under the child's arm so it crosses the lower chest. This could cause serious injury. If the shoulder belt fits so badly that it hooks under the child's chin or goes across the face, continue using a booster seat.

A Word About Airbags
Airbags saves lives. Or, to further qualify this statement, airbags save adult lives when used properly. Children should never be placed in the front seat. This was true before airbags, and it is especially true with airbags. Studies have continually proven children are safest in the back seat. Airbags and children can be a deadly combination. We all know how tempting it is to place that cute little bundle-of-joy in the seat next to you, so you can play with the baby and look at his sweet face as you drive. But don't! The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia reveals that if the passenger is in close proximity to the airbag or is unrestrained, the airbag (which deploys at 140-200 m.p.h.) will make contact with the passenger. This image alone - and the potential damage this force would do to your child - should be enough to deter an adult from EVER taking a chance in placing a child near an airbag.

Newer automobiles, particularly those vehicles without a back seat, may come equipped with an on/off switch for the passenger side airbag. Even so, children should NOT be placed in the front seat. With the hectic rituals involved in loading children into the car, it is all too easy to forget to turn that switch off after an adult passenger occupies the seat. The first known infant fatality of this nature occurred in 1998 in Ohio and involved the crash of a pickup truck equipped with an on/off switch. An infant in a rear facing seat lost his life because the switch had not been turned off. The Associated Press reported "the child seat was almost destroyed from the air bag." Regardless of the inherent dangers of a mistake such as this, the back seat is - and always has been - the safest place for children.

Ideally, older children should also be placed in the back. The U. S. government safety agency recommends that children up to age 13 ride in the back seat. If this is not possible, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the NHTSA warns it is essential to adjust the seat so it's as far back as possible. Then remember to secure the child in a properly fitting lap/shoulder belt. Children should also sit back in their seats, not perched on the edge (as far away from the airbag as possible).

So, in a short period of time, an infant safety seat, toddler safety seat, and a booster seat may join the other early childhood paraphernalia in the attic, or may become a hot selling item at next year's garage sale. But for your child's safety - and for your own peace of mind - it's an investment well worth it.

Additional Resources

For specific questions regarding integrated vehicle seats, safety seat compatibility, or instructions regarding proper placement/installation of a safety seat, contact the vehicle manufacturer:

Buick 1-800-521-7300
Cadillac 1-800-333-4223
Chevrolet 1-800-222-1020
Ford 1-800-392-3673
GMC 1-800-462-8782
Honda 1-800-999-1009
Pontiac 1-800-762-2737
Saturn 1-800-553-6000
Toyota 1-800-331-4331

For additional information, contact your State Safety Office at the Department of Transportation.

About the Author: Kristi Grigsby is the co-founder of the Send A Child A Smile program, which sends "smiles" to children struggling to cope with traumatic events. Ms. Grigsby holds B.S. and M.B.A. degrees, and is a contributing writer for a regional family magazine.

* Updated September 2009

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