Car-seat safety puts children in their place

In this February 13, 2007, file photograph, Texas Department of Public Safety trooper Robbie...

Story by Nicole Villalpando
Fri, May 25, 2012
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AUSTIN, Texas — As the summer driving season is approaching, we look at car seat, booster seat and seat belt safety for all road trips — from cross-country sightseeing to a trip to the grocery store.

We talked with Dr. Dennis Durbin, the associate trauma director at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines on car seats and booster seats, as well as Tareka Wheeler, Safe Kids Austin coordinator at Dell Children’s Medical Center, and Dr. Nilda Garcia, medical director of trauma services at Dell Children’s.

The front seat

In carpool dropoff lanes at elementary schools all over, you see children emerging from the front seat. But children younger than 13 should not be in that seat, Wheeler says. The average 13-year-old has enough height, weight and skeletal muscular maturity to ride in that front seat with the air bag that will come at them at 200 mph in a crash. The safest place to be in any car regardless of passenger’s age is the middle of the back seat (or the middle seat of the middle row in a minivan.)

Yet, Wheeler, who is trained to install car seats, has installed one in the front seat. If a mom has four children and a five-passenger sedan, you put the oldest child in the front with that seat pushed all the way back, she says.

Rear-facing car seats absolutely cannot go in the front. Parents can check with the car dealer to see about turning off the front passenger air bag. This is also true for pickup trucks.

Rear-facing car seats

The cry heard around the playground happened last year when the American Academy of Pediatrics changed its car seat recommendations to say that children younger than 2 should remain in rear-facing car seats. Before, it had been almost a rite of passage that on your child’s first birthday, you made the car seat forward-facing. Actually, Durbin says, his group didn’t really change the rules. It has always been that a child should be in a rear-facing car seat until he or she outgrows the height and weight of that car seat. A decade ago, most rear-facing car seats only accommodated about 22 pounds in weight. Now, those car seats are good for kids up to 30 or 35 pounds, some even to 50 pounds.

Rear-facing car seats are generally safer than front-facing car seats because the crash impact gets spread across the back of the seat rather than the front of the child, Wheeler says. Even after a child turns 2, if she still fits within the height and weight requirement of that rear-facing car seat, keep her there until she outgrows it.

The most important thing parents can do when installing these car seats is read the car seat’s instructions and read the car manufacturer’s instructions. The car manufacturer will tell you where the LATCH system is in the car. Even though the safest place for that rear-facing car seat is the middle of the back seat, some older cars don’t have a LATCH system for that seat.

Given a choice between using a LATCH system or the seat belt to attach the car seat, use the car’s LATCH system. Don’t use both, which can put undue stress on the seat. When using a seat belt, make sure it’s threaded correctly through the car seat according to the car seat manufacturer’s instructions. Also make sure that you lock the seat belt by pulling on it then letting it go.

Where’s the safest place for your passengers?

Keep the youngest in the middle of the car and have the right kind of car seat for each passenger based on age and weight.

  1. A teenager or an adult can ride in the front seat with a seat belt on. The safest place is still the back seat.
  2. An infant must be in a rear-facing car seat.
  3. Adult drivers must wear seat belts.
  4. Children younger than age 2 should be in rear-facing car seats.
  5. A 4- to 7-year-old should sit in a high-back booster seat until he reaches the upper weight and/or height limit for the seat.
  6. A 2- to 4-year-old should ride in a forward-facing car seat until he reaches the upper weight and/or height limit for the seat.
  7. An 8- to 12-year-old less than 4 feet 9 inches can be in a high-back booster or a low-back booster used with the car’s adjustable head rest until he reaches the upper weight and/or height of the seat.

Sources: Dell Children’s Medical Center, Safe Kids Austin, American Academy of Pediatrics

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