By Joel Bolton, Gulf States Regional Center for Public Safety Innovations, Natchitoches, Louisiana
hild Passenger Safety Week (February 11–17, 2007) is a useful reminder of the importance of protecting the smallest passengers on the roads. It is also an opportunity for law enforcement officers to educate parents and caregivers on how to keep children safe on every trip.
Car crashes are the leading cause of death for kids ages 2 to 14. On average, nearly 2,000 children under the age of 15 are killed each year in crashes on U.S. roadways.
Parents Struggle with Child Safety Seats
Properly restraining children has proven to be a challenge for many parents. They must select the proper safety seat for the child’s age and weight, make sure the child safety seat they select is compatible with their vehicle’s seating positions, and secure the child correctly in the safety seat’s harness system.
The general guidelines are well known. The rear seat is the safest place to ride in a vehicle (for kids and adults). Infants ride in rear-facing seats until they are at least one year old and weigh 20 pounds. Then they move to a forwardfacing child seat until they reach the height and weight limits for that seat, typically when they are about four years old and 40 pounds. When a child has outgrown the forward-facing seat, the next step for a safe ride is a booster seat, which should be used until the child is about eight years old and four feet nine inches tall.
At that point, it is time to determine if the child fits safely in the vehicle’s adult safety belts. Safe Kids Worldwide provides the following safety belt fit test designed to help parents make sure their child is ready:
- Have your child sit all the way back on the vehicle seat. Do his or her knees bend at the front edge of the seat? If they bend naturally, go to question 2. If they don’t, keep using the booster seat.
- Buckle the lap and shoulder belt. Be sure the lap belt lies on the upper legs or hips. If it does, go to question 3. If it lies on the stomach, return to the booster seat.
- Be sure the shoulder belt rests on the shoulder or collarbone. If it does, go to question 4. If it’s on the face or neck, return to the booster seat. Never put the shoulder belt under the child’s arm or behind the child’s back.
- Check whether your child maintains the correct seating position for as long as you are in the car. If your child slouches or shifts position so the safety belt touches the face, neck, or stomach, return your child to the booster seat.
Police should refer parents to the instruction manual for their particular child safety seat, and also the vehicle owner’s manual for specific information.
Booster Seat Use Rates Are Too Low
Parents are less likely to place a child in a restraint system as the child gets older. Surveys show that restraint use rates for infants and toddlers are high. But the use rate for boosters among kids who should be using them (that is, children ages four to seven) is less than 20 percent.
A recently released report from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia found that children who are moved to adult safety belts too soon are three times as likely to be injured in a crash. The report also noted that parents are allowing children to ride in the front seat at too early an age, a practice that contributes to unnecessary injuries.
Misuse of Restraint Systems Continues to Be a Problem
It is clear from what officers see on traffic stops and at checkup events that misuse of child restraints continues to be a problem. One study found one or more critical errors in more than 70 percent of child safety seats observed. Children were in seats inappropriate for their age and weight, seats facing the wrong direction, rear-facing seats placed in air bag–equipped seating positions, and seats not held securely in place by the vehicle’s safety belt.
Even a system designed to make installation easier for parents has caused confusion, according to a recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study. The Latch (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system consists of a child safety seat with two lower attachments and an upper tether that connect with lower anchor points and a top tether anchor built into the vehicle.
The study found that many parents continue to use safety belts to hold the seat in place, rather than attaching the Latch system. Many parents also fail to secure the top tether to the child safety seat.
Law enforcement agencies have been leading advocates in the effort to educate parents and provide a safer ride for kids. Many departments have a cadre of trained child passenger safety technicians among their ranks who provide child safety seat checkup events to educate parents. Agencies have also established what are known as fitting stations that operate during scheduled times for parents to learn how to properly transport their kids.
Parents Trust Police Advice on Child Safety
Police officers, deputies, and troopers are respected by parents as sources of information to help keep their children safe. Law enforcement officers should take this responsibility seriously and provide accurate and up-to-date guidance. Good sources of current information include state highway safety offices or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Web sites (www.nhtsa.gov or www.boosterseat.gov). ■