UPDATED: Mar 13, 2020
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- Driving has become part and parcel of life in the United States, and compared to other major forms of transportation, traveling in automobiles is among the safest ways that people can get from one place to another. Yet that does not mean that driving is without its own particular safety hazards, especially for children. Fortunately, there are several steps that can be taken to make traveling in a car or truck safer for kids. As long as parents and caregivers make use of the right equipment and take the right precautions, they can be confident that their children will not be facing any unpreventable dangers when driving about town or traveling by car for long distances.
Child Safety Seats
When seat belts were first introduced, many people were not aware of the dangers that these safety devices actually pose to young children. Until youngsters are the size of young adults, using regular adult safety belts can actually prove quite damaging to kids. The force of inertia can lead to broken collarbones and necks, among other problems. That is why specially-designed child safety seats that will not cause harm to kids in the event of a crash have been created. These seats keep children secure while they are traveling by car, and most hospitals will not even allow parents to take their newborn children home without the proper child safety seat installed in the car.
Child safety seats need to be used through the so-called tween years, although there are different seats for each age group. Those designed for tweens are more like booster seats, for example, while infant seats are often combined with infant carriers in one secure device. Placing a child in an improper car seat for their size can actually increase the risk of death or injury, so it is very important for parents to make sure that they only use the type of car seat recommended for the age and weight of their child. Parents will need to acquire several different seats over the lifetime of their child or children, and this is definitely not an area where it is wise to purchase used seats or to scrimp too much when in the market for these essential devices.
In the past, most car seats were secured to the seat in the car using the car’s own seatbelt, but this system has proved to be complicated, and many parents have had difficulty installing the car seat properly. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration actually says that three out of four car seats are not used correctly, and so the LATCH restraint system has been developed to help parents install and use their child safety seats rightly. Since 2002, most cars in the United States have been required to be LATCH compatible, which means that they have special metal bars to which the car seat can be tethered easily. This easy-to-use system has helped parents across the country be confident in their safety seats after they are installed, and it should help reduce the number of child safety seats that are improperly placed in cars.
Finally, parents should be aware that there is help out there for making sure that they have installed their car seat correctly. Most fire stations will do a free inspection of a child safety seat to make sure it is put in the car rightly. Many county governments will offer this service as well, even if not through the fire department, so parents should look into the matter with their local authorities.
Safety Belt Information
Most children can start sitting in the car’s own seating and use only its safety belts to secure them in place when they reach age eight, but that does not mean that the seat belt is not a part of securing the child in the vehicle before then. Seat belts are almost always used to help secure infant carriers and car seats for toddlers into the car itself, and they are also used with booster seats for children that are too big for a separate car seat and yet not big enough to wear seat belt as an adult would.
The key to knowing when a child can wear the safety belt is more a factor of size than it is age. A child can sit in the car’s proper seat and wear only a safety belt when the lap belt lays across the upper part of the thighs and the shoulder belt lays across the child’s chest. So if the belt crosses the neck of the child or can only lay across the child’s shins, for example, then the child must use a safety seat or a booster seat. Practically speaking, the child will have to attain the height of four feet nine inches before they can get rid of their special seating altogether.
When children reach a weight of forty pounds, which for most children will be around age four, they will be too big for forward-facing child car safety seats but not sufficiently tall to wear a seatbelt like an adult would. At this point parents should use car booster seats in conjunction with the seatbelt until the child is tall enough to wear the seatbelt alone.
Where to Position Children
Using child safety seats properly also depends upon placing the child in the right direction in the car. Of course, children should always sit in child safety seats in the backseat of the car, and even when they only need a seatbelt it is wise for them to still ride in the backseat until they are roughly adult size. Air bags that are deployed in the front seat in the event of a crash can injure a child, and that is the main reason why they should sit in the back. Children should sit in the center of the backseat when they ride in the car, for that is the safest place in the entire vehicle.
Aside from placing child safety seats in the back of the car, there is also the choice as to whether the car seat will face forward or backward. It is safest for infants to be in a rear-facing car seat, and so the youngest of children should use such seats for as long as possible. At least, according to safety standards, a child should sit in a rear-facing seat until age one or until they weigh twenty pounds, but if the rear-facing seat can hold a bigger child, the child should stay in the seat until they outgrow it. Once children are too big for the rear-facing seat, they will sit in a forward-facing car seat until they weigh about forty pounds, but again, some seats may hold larger children. Booster seats follow until children reach the proper height (4’9”) to wear only a safety belt. As with any product, parents should pay careful attention to the seat manufacturer’s directions so that they can be sure they are using the safety seats properly.
Safety and Accident Statistic
- It might seem that these recommendations are too extensive, but once parents see that child safety seats can help keep their children from becoming another statistic, they will understand why these seats are so important. The statistics that measure how many children are injured or killed each year are staggering: in 2008, roughly 1,000 children under the age of fourteen were killed in auto accidents in the United States, and 168,000 children were seriously injured in U.S. auto accidents in 2008.
- Children who ride with adults who do not wear safety belts are far more likely not to wear seatbelts than those children who ride with seatbelt-wearing adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control, however, the proper use of child safety seats and other safety precautions, can greatly reduce a child’s odds of injury or death in the unfortunate event of an auto accident.
- Parents can reduce the risk of their infants’ death in a car accident by 71% and lower the risk of auto fatalities for one-to-four year olds by 54% if they use child safety seats properly.
- The use of child booster seats can lower the risk of death for older children by up to 60%.
- Children under the age of 16 who ride in the back seat are 40% less likely to suffer a serious injury in a car crash than those who ride in the front.
- Parents and caregivers who wear seatbelts effectively encourage their children to do the same, thereby minimizing their risk of injury and death.
The importance of using seatbelts and child safety seats properly should never be underestimated, but it is certainly better never to get into an auto accident in the first place. Yet as much as parents love their children, kids can distract the driver and increase the odds of an accident. Several precautions should be taken to help reduce these distractions and improve the odds that drivers will be able to conduct themselves defensively on the road and avoid even minor accidents.
First, bored children are far more likely than those who are not bored to blurt out exclamations or otherwise startle or distract the driver and increase the risk of an accident. Keeping children entertained can alleviate boredom and lessen distractions. Parents or caregivers should give a child something to do while riding in the car. A coloring book and crayons or travel game can be an excellent way to help children pass the time and avoid boredom, and in-car DVD players mounted behind the front seats are another way to keep the child entertained. Parents can also have their children count all the cars they see of a certain color or come up with other game that can be played while driving.
Cranky children can also cause distractions, so wise parents and caregivers will do whatever they can to minimize the chances that a child will get upset in the back of the car. A good way to keep crankiness at bay is not to go driving with a hungry child. If it is possible, settling any arguments between children before getting in the car can also minimize crying, yelling, and other distractions. Having a crying child in the backseat can be as distracting as talking on a cell phone, so doing whatever can be done to avoid such crying is always recommended.
Finally, parents must resist the urge to turn around and look at their children while they are driving. It can be tempting to look backwards to find out what is wrong or to help solve a problem, but that takes one’s eyes of the road and can lead to fatal accidents. Parents should resolve beforehand never to turn around and look behind them at the backseat while driving, and if they need to pay attention to what is going on behind them, they should always pull over to the side of the road to address the problem.
For more information on properly installing child safety seats and making sure children are safely secured while traveling, visit the following websites:
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Child Safety Page
- CDC Child Passenger Safety Fact Sheet
- Seat Check
- Safe Kids – Child Passenger Safety
- Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) Restraint System
- Ad Council’s Child Car Safety
- Keeping Kids Safe During Crashes
- State Farm Child Safety Day
- Car Safety Seats: Information for Families for 2010
- Car Seat Safety Chart