Kiddie conundrum

Proper safety seat use isn’t child’s play

The term “cliff-hanger” typically describes a suspense-filled movie that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. But a real-life cliff-hanger that occurred last February in Big Sur, Calif., is dramatic proof of the protective powers of child safety seats. An 18-month-old baby sustained only slight injuries when the car she was traveling in plunged 140 metres down a steep cliff and hit a boulder. Rescuers found the girl securely strapped in her child seat in the backseat (the safest place for kids).

Child safety seats are designed with happy endings in mind. But many parents may unwittingly be compromising their child’s safety through improper use. According to Valerie Lee of the Infant & Toddler Safety Association, which conducts child seat clinics, only about 20 percent of seats in Canada are installed safely and correctly.

The problem is that buying and installing a child seat is anything but child’s play. “At any one time, there are about 15 or 20 makes and models of car seats in Canada and about 150 different models of vehicles,” notes France Legault, an occupant restraint engineer for Transport Canada. “There are thousands of permutations and combinations. It’s challenging to find the best fit.” By September 2002, all new passenger vehicles sold in Canada will come with a standardized lower fastening system and tether strap hardware already installed. Until the simpler “plug and go” system arrives, parents may wind up wrestling with locking clips or frustrated by jargon-filled instructions.

The best way to head off child seat hassles is to research the purchase and buy from a store that offers refunds or exchanges. “Not all seats are compatible with every car,” notes Val Trivisonno of Fisher-Price of Canada. If the seat is going to be used in more than one vehicle, try it in them all and refer to the owner’s manual to ensure compatibility. The type of seat needed is usually based on the weight, rough age and height of the child. As a child outgrows one type of seat, it’s time to move on to the next.

Four out of five child seats aren’t installed properly.

Use a rear-facing seat for infants up to 22 pounds or 10 kilograms and until a child is about one year old. Toddlers up to four and a half years of age and weighing up to 40 pounds or 18 kilograms should be in a front-facing seat. Children from four and a half to eight years and weighing up to 60 pounds or 27 kilograms should use a booster seat. Any seat you use should have a label stating it meets Canadian Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. Be wary of secondhand seats. They may be missing parts, instructions or may have been recalled.

Read both your car owner’s manual and the car seat instruction manual. “I know I can almost do it with my eyes closed, but I still check the instructions every time,” says Artie Martin, a General Motors of Canada safety engineer who’s overseen thousands of installations during car seat clinics. Common mistakes include: not tightening the seat-belts enough (the child seat shouldn’t move more than one inch or 2.5 centimetres forward or from side to side), not sufficiently tightening the straps holding the child, missing or loose locking clips, improperly positioned chest clips and misuse of – or failure to use – the tether strap.

Trivisonno knows parents have to make car seat use a habit. Three years ago, before she became involved with child safety, her four-year-old niece, who wasn’t in a booster seat, was thrown out of a vehicle during a crash when she slipped out of an adult seat-belt. Luckily, she wasn’t seriously injured. “If I had known then what I know now, it would have prevented her from being thrown out of the vehicle,” says Trivisonno. “It all comes down to education.”

Maryanna Lewyckyj is consumer advocate for the Toronto Sun. She conducts car care seminars for women through her company, Autophobics Anonymous.

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