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Driving Toward Disaster

93 percent of child car seats installed wrong, study finds

THURSDAY, Feb. 7, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Think you know how to install a child car seat? Guess again.

A recent study in San Francisco found that a full 93 percent of booster seats inspected were installed incorrectly or misused.

"Unfortunately, this is something we see nationwide," says Karen DiCapua, director of the National SAFE Kids Campaign's child passenger safety department. "We've seen families make the same mistakes across the whole country."

Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for children aged 1 through 14. In 2000, 1,875 children died in motor vehicle crashes, according to federal statistics. In 1999, an estimated 272,000 were injured.

Studies have shown that young children are twice as likely to die in an accident if they are not restrained in a car seat. Experts say a typical lap-and-shoulder seat belt is not designed to protect anyone under 80 pounds; car seats boost children up so the seat belts work properly.

Car seats also restrain children so they do not fly through or out of the car during a collision.

In the new study, investigators with the San Francisco Injury Center inspected 396 car seats, mainly those designed for infants and toddlers. The inspections were mostly held at police stations, says Marcela Paquin, a research assistant with the injury center.

The investigators found a variety of installation problems. Most often, parents failed to tightly secure the seats into the car with the vehicle's seat belts.

The problem persisted no matter what kind of car seat was used, Paquin says. "If your seat is not held in tightly, the child in the seat can act as a projectile in a crash."

Parents also had trouble using the harnesses that hold children into the safety seats. Some did not cinch the harness straps tightly, while others did not thread them correctly through the appropriate slots, Paquin says.

In addition, 31 of the child seats had been recalled without the parents' knowledge, she says.

Perhaps due to public-service announcements, the majority of San Francisco parents knew car seats belong in the back seat, a position thought to reduce the risk of injury by 30 percent. Ninety-three percent of parents put them there, Paquin says.

However, only 44 percent placed the seats in the safest position -- the middle of the back seat. Of course, that's not always possible for parents with more than one child, Paquin says.

To install car seats correctly, parents need to read the instruction manuals for both the seats and their vehicles, says DiCapua.

"I've heard people say that if parents spent as much time reading the directions to their car seat as those to their VCR, they'd be in a better position. But I do think it's a little overwhelming," DiCapua says.

"This comes at a time when parents are dealing with a lot of other things. They have a new baby, and they're trying to figure out how to feed and take care of them. Car seats are just one new lesson for them," she adds.

States have a variety of laws about car seats. On Jan. 1, California began mandating car seat use for all children under age 6 or weighing less than 60 pounds. The previous regulations only extended to age 4 and 40 pounds. Violation of the laws result in a $270 fine.

What To Do: Has your child safety seat been recalled? Is it installed correctly? Get the answers from the U.S. Department of Transportation or Keep Kids Healthy Inc.

SOURCES: Interviews with Karen DiCapua, director, child passenger safety department, National SAFE Kids Campaign, Washington, D.C.; Marcela Paquin, research assistant, San Francisco Injury Center
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