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Questions to Ask Before Buying a Family Car

Here are some important questions to consider before you begin shopping for your next vehicle:

1. How many children will you be transporting?

Regardless of whether or not your kids are still in car seats, one seat belt is essential for each passenger. Make sure that there are as many seat belts in the backseat as there are kids under the age of 12 in your family. It is estimated that children are 26 percent less likely to be fatally injured if seated in the rear seat of a passenger vehicle.

2. Will you be installing child seats? Where will you place them?

All children are safest when properly restrained in the backseat. NEVER use a rear-facing child seat in the front seat of a vehicle with a front passenger air bag unless the air bag has been turned off. If your child weighs less than 20 pounds (regardless of age), use a rear-facing infant-only or convertible child seat, used rear facing, in the backseat of the vehicle.

If your child weighs more than 20 pounds and is not yet 1 year old, use a rear-facing convertible seat that is made to be used with heavier infants. Children 1 year old and at least 20 pounds may ride facing forward.

3. Do you need a booster seat?

When children reach the weight and height limit of most forward-facing seats (about 40 pounds and 40 inches, or when the middle of the ears are above the top of the safety seat), they should be moved to a belt-positioning booster seat to help the lap and shoulder belt fit better. Most belt-positioning booster seats will accommodate children up to about 80 pounds. When used properly, booster seats can help prevent injury to older children by making adult-sized seat belts fit more effectively. The adult lap and shoulder belt should fit the child snugly, with the lap belt laying flat across the lap/upper thigh area, and the shoulder belt crossing the chest, resting against the middle of the child's shoulder. Without a belt-positioning booster seat, the lap belt can ride up over the child's stomach and cause serious internal injuries in a crash, and the shoulder belt can cross the face, causing the child to slide out from underneath it, causing serious injury to the head, face, and neck.

4. Will the vehicle seat belt system meet the needs of your children?

Correct seat belt use for all vehicle occupants should be the rule in your vehicle. Children who have outgrown child seats and booster seats should be able to fit the adult belt system correctly. The lap belt should fit low over the child's upper thighs when he or she is sitting straight against the vehicle seat back, and the child's knees should bend comfortably over the edge of the vehicle seat. The shoulder belt should stay on the shoulder and be close to the child's chest. Never put the shoulder belt under the arm or behind the child's back. The adult lap and shoulder belt system alone will not fit most children until they are about 4 feet 9 inches tall and weigh about 80 pounds.

A lap-only belt (without a shoulder strap) should be used to restrain a child only if no other seat belt system is available. If you must transport several children in a vehicle that has a lap-only belt in the middle rear seat, and one of the children is in a rear-facing or a convertible or toddler child seat, have the older children use the lap and shoulder belts, and put the child riding in a child seat in the middle. Then secure the child seat with the lap-only belt.

5. What is the child safety seat "LATCH" restraint system?

LATCH is an acronym for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. It is a standardized child safety seat attachment system, independent of the vehicle belt system, that simplifies child safety seat installation. This independent system has two lower anchorages and one upper tether anchorage. The LATCH system is designed to better stabilize the child safety seat and reduce the potential for head injury. All passenger vehicles manufactured after September 1, 2000 (except most convertibles), will be equipped with the top tether anchorage, and most forward-facing child safety seats will have top tether straps that attach to the vehicle tether anchors. The lower anchorage LATCH system requires vehicles to be equipped with anchorage points between a vehicle's seat cushion and seat back. Child seats can attach to the vehicle seat via these lower anchorages instead of being held by the vehicle's seat belts. This lower anchorage system is in most new cars, minivans, and light trucks as of September 1, 2002, and will greatly simplify child seat installation. In addition, as of September 1, 2002, all child safety seats must have two lower attachments that connect to the anchorage points. Although convertibles are exempt from tether anchorage requirements, some manufacturers offer them as a safety enhancement.

6. What does the LATCH system look like?

The LATCH system has one upper (tether) anchorage and two lower anchorages. The upper (tether) anchorage is a ringlike object, permanently attached to the vehicle. Depending on the vehicle, the anchorage may be located on the shelf or back of the seat, on the floor or on the ceiling. Each lower anchorage will be a rigid, round rod located where the vehicle seat cushion meets the seat back. On the child safety seat: Since September 1999, all forward-facing child safety seats were required to meet stricter head protection standards, likely resulting in the addition of a tether strap at the top of the child safety seat. This tether strap attaches to the upper anchorage or ring in the vehicle. Since September 2002, new child safety seats are required to have two lower attachments -- hooks, buckles or snaps -- that connect to the lower anchorages in the vehicle.

7. Which vehicles have the LATCH system?

As of September 1, 2000, all new passenger vehicles (except most convertibles) are equipped with the top tether anchorage. Ask your car dealer which new models are equipped with the LATCH system. Check your vehicle owner's manual to determine if your older vehicle has predrilled points where tether anchorages can be installed.

8. What about side air bags?

Side air bags, which are not required by law, provide additional chest protection to adults in many side crashes; some also provide head protection. Consumers should be aware that children who are seated in close proximity to a side air bag may be at risk of serious or fatal injury if the air bag deploys, especially if the child's head, neck, or chest is close to the air bag at the time of deployment. Since children 12 and under should ride in the backseat, you should not purchase a vehicle with an activated rear side air bag unless the manufacturer has determined that those side air bags pose no significant risk to children. Because there are variations in the design and performance of side air bags, check with the dealer or read the owner's manual for information and warnings about child passengers and side impact air bags.

Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration