Danger in the Car

As a safety-conscious parent, you buckle your kids into their car seats every time you drive. But is that really enough to protect your family from harm? The scary truth is that car accidents are the leading cause of death for children between two and 14. Here, safety experts reveal nine hazards that most parents miss.
Safe-Driving Rules For Moms
Safe-Driving Rules For Moms

1. Buying a car seat that could come loose in a crash.

Not all car seats fit every car-and a poorly installed seat may not protect your child in an accident. Part of the problem is that the seat belts or LATCH anchors in cars don't always match up with the attachment points on car seats. LATCH anchors, which have been required equipment on all new cars since September 2002, are supposed to make car-seat installation easier. Yet a test by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found that car seats fit easily into just three out of ten popular 2003 cars with LATCH anchors.

Solution: When you shop for a car seat, take it out to your car and check whether it latches or buckles in easily-before you buy it. If you've already got a seat and want to make sure that it's installed correctly, the National Safe Kids Campaign lists inspection stations in 32 cities (log on to safekids.org). Or check with your local hospital or police or fire department.

2. Leaving stuff loose in the rear of your car.

In a crash, all that junk in the back of your SUV can become dangerous. Kids have been injured by flying bicycles, skis, spare car batteries, toolboxes, and even dogs.

Solution: Kristy Arbogast, Ph.D., a child-injury-prevention expert at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, recommends using a cargo net in front of the cargo area of your station wagon or SUV, or tying down any heavy items with bungee cords. In addition, try not to stack stuff above the seat backs in the rear of an SUV or wagon. Pets should be transported in cages that are secured to the seat or placed on the floor. Backpacks and small toys are probably not a problem, but stow them at your kids' feet just to be safe.

3. Not using a booster seat.

Parents generally do a good job of securing infants and young children in car seats, but they tend to be less vigilant when kids reach booster-seat age. "You're also dealing with a period when kids are more outspoken and may not want to be in a child seat anymore," says Jeff Michael, Ed.D., of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). But for children four to eight, riding without a booster increases the risk of being injured by nearly 60 percent. Why? Used alone, a lap belt falls across your child's abdomen instead of his pelvis and can do serious organ damage in a crash. And the shoulder belt is more likely to fall across your child's neck instead of his shoulders. Even worse, many kids will push the shoulder belt behind their back or under their arms, which leaves no upper-body restraint in a crash.

Solution: Children four to eight years old and under 4'9" tall must use a booster seat to make sure the seat belt falls across their body properly. If you don't have a booster, buy one today-and make it a rule that your child needs to buckle up properly every time he gets into the car.

4. Laying off lap belts.

It's your turn to carpool, you've got three first-graders in the backseat, and the only restraint in the center section is an old-fashioned lap belt. Many parents have heard that lap belts alone are more dangerous for kids than three-point belts, but some mistakenly assume that children are safer with no belt at all.

Solution: It's true that the kind of lap belts found in older cars are not as safe as today's three-point belts, since a child can damage her spine if she jackknifes over the belt in a crash. That's why virtually all new cars come with three-point belts at all seating positions. Still, if a lap belt is all you have, use it, says Susan Ferguson, of the IIHS.

5. Letting older kids ride in the front seat.

Just because your child has outgrown his booster seat doesn't mean he's old enough to sit in the front. Front air bags still pose a threat, despite new rules that require manufacturers to phase in "smart" air bags for all 2007 cars (many current new cars already have this technology). These advanced bags either deploy in stages, to reduce the violent inflation that can injure small adults or children, or they have sensors that can turn off the bags if a child is sitting in the front seat. But some parents mistakenly believe the new technology makes the front seat as safe as the back.

Solution: Keep any child younger than 13 in the back. Even with the new air bags, the rear seat is far safer for children. Cars with a switch that allows you to turn off the front-passenger air bag are risky too-drivers tend to turn it one way or the other, and then forget to turn it back.

6. Backing up blindly.

About 120 people-mostly children-are killed and 6,000 injured each year by vehicles that are backing up, according to the NHTSA. But the real numbers may be higher-and on the rise. Those figures are based on death certificates from 1998, when SUVs-which tend to have very large rear blind spots-were less popular than they are now.

Solution: Some safety add-ons can help reduce blind spots, but you should still get out of the car and make sure that your child isn't behind it.

7. Dialing while you drive.

Drivers are about four times as likely to get into a serious collision while they're talking on a cell phone. And recent research shows that using a headset may not cut the risk very much.

Solution: Reduce your talk time. Place calls before you leave, return them after you've arrived where you're going, and if you must use your phone while you're driving and you can't pull over, keep it short.

8. Unbuckling your baby to feed or comfort her.

It's tough to listen to your baby cry in the car, but if you're a passenger, you should never remove your child from a safety seat. Nearly half of all children who die in collisions are unrestrained, and the forces of a crash are often so great that there's no way you'd be able to hold on to your baby.

Solution: If your baby needs attention, have the driver find a safe place to pull over. If she needs to be breastfed or unbuckled for some other reason, take a break, and hit the road again when she's more comfortable.

9. Leaving kids alone in the car.

A small number of children every year are strangled when they press the power window switches while leaning out the window. (This can happen when the car is turned off but the key is in the ignition and turned over one position.) About 25 kids die from heatstroke each year when they're left inside a car with the windows up. And children can suffocate by climbing into the trunk through a fold-down rear seat.

Solution: Don't leave children unsupervised in a car. If you must take your eyes off them for a moment, make sure they stay in their car seats. And show older kids how to operate the interior trunk-release handle designed to give them a way out if they get trapped in there.

Copyright © 2005. Reprinted with permission from the January 2005 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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