The first rule of car-seat safety is using one. And even then there are several steps you should take to make sure your child is strapped in correctly.
Experts point to the importance of car seats in the aftermath of a car accident in Plano, Texas. An 11-month-old was killed when a side air bag deployed as her mother's minivan collided with a pickup. The infant was standing on her mother's lap when the accident occurred.
Here are some tips on keeping your child safe.
Five-point harness: Safety experts recommend a five-point harness because the lap part of the harness fits over the child's hip bones and can be adjusted to secure snugly. Rear-facing seats: use harness slots below shoulder level, not above shoulder level. This will pull the child down and hold him in place in a crash. Forward-facing seats: The straps of most models must be in the top-most slots. Models vary so always read manufacturer's instructions for your seat.
Harness straps: Harness straps should lie flat and be held on shoulders with a harness retainer clip. The strap should hug the body. One adult finger between the strap and your child's chest is a good measure for tightness. Place the chest clip at armpit level.
Labels: Look for the labels and follow instructions found on seat belts, safety seats and sun visors. Read the instructions that come with the safety seat and your vehicle owner's manual.
Best angle: An infant seat must be installed at a 45-degree angle. If the seat is too upright, the baby's head will fall. If reclined too much, the straps will pull on the infant's shoulders. A tightly rolled towel under the base of a child safety seat may help achieve the correct angle. To fill empty spaces and give support, roll up a couple of small blankets and tuck them in on each side of your baby's shoulders and head.
Convertible safety seat: When your child's age and size require you to turn a convertible safety seat to face forward, re-read the manufacturer's instructions. Typically, the safety seat should be adjusted to the upright position, the shoulder straps moved to the top (not center) slots, and the vehicle belt moved to a different part of the safety seat.
HOW TO GET A TIGHT FIT
The lap belt must hold the safety seat firmly in place. To make it tight, put your knee and full weight into the seat while pulling the slack tight from the belt around it.
To check for a firm fit, pull the safety seat forward and push it from side to side. The belt should be "locked" to prevent gradual loosening. The seat should not move more than 1 inch from side to side and should not wobble, pivot, slide side-to-side, or tip over.
For booster seats: The lap belt should fit low and snug on a child's hips. The shoulder belt must not cross the face or neck. Never put the shoulder belt behind a child's back or under a child's arm.
WHEN IS A CHILD READY FOR A BOOSTER SEAT?
It's time to move a child from a toddler seat to a booster seat when the child's ears get above the back seat of the child restraint. Parents often incorrectly move a child to a booster seat when a new child is ready for the seat currently in use.
IN THE FUTURE
All forward-facing car seats made after September 1999 must meet a new federal requirement designed to limit the forward motion of a child's head in a crash. The requirement means most new car seats will include a tether strap - an attachment that anchors the top of a car seat to a vehicle to keep it more secure.
The change also requires most 2000-model year cars to have tether anchors. Tether kits can also be purchased to retrofit anchors to earlier vehicle models and tether attachments to seats manufactured before Sept. 1, 1999.
The next phase will bring car seats with attachments that snap into specially made anchors in the vehicle seat. Both car seat manufacturers and automakers will be required to comply with the universal standard by Sept. 1, 2002.
CHILD SAFETY SEAT FACTS
Infants are safest when riding facing the rear because the back of the safety seat supports the child's back, neck, and head in a crash. Your baby should ride facing rear until about one year of age and at least 20 pounds. Never put a baby in a front passenger seat with an air bag.
Car crashes are the leading cause of death and injury to children.
A child under 80 pounds is generally too small for an adult seat belt. The lap belt rides up over the stomach and the shoulder belt cuts across the neck. In a crash, this can cause critical or even fatal injuries.
After age 4, restraint use falls from 91 percent to 68.7 percent. Over 47 percent of fatally injured children ages 4 to 7 are completely unrestrained.
The safest place for any child 12 years old and under is in the back seat. The middle of the back seat is considered the safest spot, followed by the back seat passenger side. Back seat on the driver's side is the third-safest. The front seat is the least safe.
An infant carrier is not sufficient for use as an infant car seat. It does not have places for the seat belt to hold the carrier in the car. The straps are not strong enough to hold a baby in a crash. Some infant car seats do become infant carriers, but infant carriers do not become car seats.
KEEPING BABY HAPPY IN THE CAR SEAT: DO'S AND DON'TS
Your baby is crying and traffic is crawling, what should a parent do?
Don't drive with your child out of the car seat or while holding your child. If your baby needs you, pull over.
Don't give your kids anything to eat or drink, particularly a drink with a straw that could be rammed inside a child's mouth.
Do give kids a special toy. Toys should be soft, such as a stuffed animal or cloth baby book.
Don't give a child toys with edges. Items, such as pencils, can become flying projectiles in a wreck or sudden stop.
Do play music and books with sing or read-along tapes.
Just talk to your kids. It's a great way to bond, too.
ARE YOU USING THE RIGHT CAR SEAT?
Age/weight: Birth to 1 year; up to 20 to 22 pounds
Seat type: Infant only or rear-facing convertible
Seat position: Rear-facing only
Harness straps: At or below shoulder level
Warning: Do not place infants in the front passenger seat of cars with air bags
Age/weight: Over 1 year; over 20 pounds and up to 40 pounds
Seat type: Convertible/forward-facing
Seat position: Forward-facing
Harness straps: At or above shoulders
Warning: All children age 12 and younger should ride in the back seat
Weight: Over 40 pounds and up to 80 pounds
Seat type: Belt positioning booster seat
Seat position: Forward-facing
Warning: Belt positioning booster seats must be used with both lap and shoulder belts. Make sure the lap belt fits low and tight to avoid abdominal injuries.
NEED MORE HELP?
Contact these sources for more information:
Auto Safety Hotline: 1-800-424-9393. (Be sure you have the make, model number and year of manufacture of both your vehicle and child car seat when you call.)
Have a creative way of keeping your child happy in the car seat? Send us your ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources: National Traffic Safety Administration, Injury Prevention Center of Greater Dallas