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Dangerous Driving Mistakes Even Careful Parents Make

You did your research, bought a safe family car, and never leave the driveway without first strapping your kids into their car seats. That's smart -- but is it enough to protect them from harm? The scary fact is that every day, 7 children are killed and another 872 are injured in motor-vehicle collisions across the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Obviously, you can't always avoid a car crash, because some collisions are caused by other drivers. But many parents unwittingly put their kids in danger while they drive. These sobering real-life stories illustrate just how quickly and easily an accident can happen -- even when you think that your children are safe.

"I left my kids alone in the car for a few minutes."

Last November, before leaving her mother's house for the six-hour drive home to Coalinga, California, Anna-belle Moody wanted to make sure that nothing was left behind. So with her three kids already inside the family car, which was parked in the driveway, the 38-year-old mom dashed inside. That's when Annabelle's youngest child, 3-year-old Malan, spotted the gear shift. Before his brother, Devin, 8, and sister, Casie, 6, realized it, the toddler had climbed into the front seat and pulled the lever into neutral. The front passenger door was hanging wide open.

As the car began to roll, Malan lost his balance and tumbled out the door. Thinking fast, Devin reached up, forced the gear shift back into park, and leaped from the car. He found his little brother lying on the ground and tore into the house, screaming, "Malan's hurt! Malan's hurt!"

With two skull fractures, a punctured lung, and a ruptured spleen, Malan was in the hospital for eight days. "As a parent, I've tried so hard to make safety a priority," Moody says. "But I just didn't know that kids should never be left alone in a car."

Scary Facts:

A recent survey by the National Safe Kids Campaign found that 20 percent of parents ages 18 to 24 considered it okay to leave kids unattended in a car. What's more, half of the parents surveyed said they don't always lock cars parked at home. "These are disasters waiting to happen," says Janette Fennell, executive director of Kids 'N Cars, a San Francisco-based nonprofit.

Kids 'N Cars has compiled more than 1,200 cases in which kids were injured while left alone in cars: Besides putting a car in motion, children have also been burned by lighters, injured by windows, and trapped in trunks. One in four cases was fatal.

Smart Safety Steps:

  • Whether or not the keys are in the ignition, never leave your children unattended in or around a vehicle, not even for a minute.
  • Store your car keys in a secure place, where they are inaccessible to your kids. Children pay close attention to what you do and know full well what those keys are for and how to use them.
  • Always keep your car locked when it's parked in the driveway or the garage.

On a spring evening last year, Jacob Tobias buckled his 16-month-old daughter, Kennedy, into her car seat, and the two headed home to Pahrump, Nevada. They'd been in Las Vegas visiting Jacob's father. "About 15 minutes from home, Jacob lost control of his car, which rolled off the highway and into the desert," says his wife, Pam. Tragically, Jacob was killed.

Little Kennedy was found still strapped into her car seat. But a standard-size toolbox kept on the floor of the backseat had wreaked havoc. "In the collision, it became a projectile and slammed into her head, fracturing her skull in two places," her mother says. "Seventy-two hours passed before the doctors could even say whether she would survive or not."

Now recovering, Kennedy must relearn how to speak, struggles to use her right arm and hand, and walks with a slight limp. When Tobias was informed several days after the crash that the toolbox was what had injured her daughter, she was stunned. "I had no idea the box posed such a danger," she says.

Scary Facts:

Most people don't understand the violence of a crash, says Karen DiCapua, director of child passenger safety at the National Safe Kids Campaign. "If you're going 35 miles per hour and get in a crash, everything in your car is still going 35 miles per hour until it hits something. That something could be you or your child."

The Philadelphia-based research project Partners for Child Passenger Safety says that 15 percent of kids in a collision come into contact with things inside the car. These include loose objects, other occupants, even dogs.

Smart Safety Steps:

  • If you have a trunk, use it, even for groceries and clothes.
  • If you drive a minivan, an SUV, or a station wagon, consider installing a cargo divider or a net in the back to protect passengers and to transport pets. Don't let your dog sit in the backseat with your children. And always make sure things in the car are tied down securely -- most vehicles have anchors for this purpose.
  • Be wary of baby accessories. For example, rearview mirrors that attach with a suction cup so you can see your rear-facing infant are likely to become projectiles in a crash.

When Giana Mandel turned 4, her mother, Francine Del Ricci, made a smart safety decision by buying her a booster seat. "Giana used it for almost a year, but when she was close to 5, I thought she was big enough to ride without it," says Del Ricci, 42, of Fort Washington, Pennsylvania. So on a summer day in 1998, Giana's mom let her go on an outing with a teacher from school on one condition: that she ride in her seat belt in the center of the backseat. Del Ricci remembered having read that a child in an accident is safest in that spot because it's the farthest point from any impact.

Several hours later, Giana and her teacher were hit head-on by a drunk driver. Riding in the center of the backseat -- a position equipped with only a lap belt -- Giana was in serious trouble. She was far too small for the vehicle's belt system and had no upper-body restraint.

The lap belt cut into Giana's abdomen, causing severe trauma to her gastrointestinal tract. She was in and out of the hospital for months and had to be fed intravenously. Emergency-room physicians see this injury so often that they've even given it a name: seat-belt syndrome.

Scary Facts:

Only 5 percent of kids who should be in belt-positioning booster seats are actually using one, says Flaura Winston, M.D., Ph.D., principal investigator of Partners for Child Passenger Safety. But standard seat belts are not designed for kids, and lap belts alone have the potential to be even more harmful. A child who's restrained only by a lap belt (or who has pushed the shoulder belt behind his back because it's uncomfortable) often gets injured when his head slams into his own knees or the back of the front seat.

Smart Safety Steps:

  • For seat belts to operate properly, a child over 40 pounds must be in a booster seat, which elevates him enough so that the belt crosses his shoulder and hips in the right place. Kids generally need that seat until they weigh 80 pounds.
  • Teenagers and adults should also always use a lap and shoulder belt.

When her 3-month-old daughter, Caitlin, started to cry in her car seat on the way home from a family trip last December, Vicki Carey let her mother take over the wheel and got into the backseat. But Caitlin remained inconsolable. Although a small voice in Carey's gut told her that doing so was wrong, the 37-year-old Connecticut mom removed her daughter from the car seat to nurse her. "She was out of the seat for ten minutes," she says.

Just as Caitlin was going back into her car seat, a reckless driver forced the family's car off the road, which caused it to collide with a van. "Caitlin hadn't even been buckled in yet," Carey says. Although the impact gave everyone a jolt, no one was hurt. But Carey says she got the point: "As long as the car is moving, my daughter will always be belted into her car seat."

Scary Facts:

Children who are unrestrained in a car become projectiles in a crash and are often ejected from the vehicle, says Stephanie Tombrello, executive director of SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A., a public-service group based in Torrance, California. "A child is going to hit something or someone in the car, or, worse, you could crush your own child as you try to hold on to him," she adds.

Smart Safety Steps:

  • If your child is hungry or fussy, stop driving and find a safe place to park before you calm her. Don't try pulling over onto the highway shoulder, however -- collisions occur there all the time. Find a rest area or a parking lot.
  • Never sit in the front seat holding your baby, and never put an infant car seat in the front seat. If your air bag discharges in a collision, your child could be killed.

It was a scorching Oklahoma day in 1998, and 6-year-old Kamden Clonts and his 5-year-old cousin, Joshua, wanted to go swimming. So when Kamden's mom, Stephanie, agreed to the plan, the three headed out in their pickup, with the boys riding in the cargo area. They never made it to the pool.

While crossing at an intersection two blocks away, the Clontses' pickup was hit hard by a larger truck that was racing through the intersection at twice the speed limit. "The boys were thrown right out of the back," Clonts says. The force of the crash sent her truck sailing into a nearby yard.

"When I climbed out, Kamden and Josh were on the ground screaming and terribly scraped up," she recalls. Both boys were rushed to the E.R. Dozens of pebbles had to be extracted from Kamden's scalp. Josh suffered a broken leg, a concussion, and spinal damage.

"You should never think that this won't happen to you," warns Clonts, who says that riding in the back of a truck is still commonplace in her community.

Scary Facts:

With more than 36 million pickups on the road today, this problem is as prevalent as ever, says Holly DeBlois, a rural youth-safety specialist at the National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety, in Marshfield, Wisconsin. "Most people don't understand how easily a passenger riding in the back can be injured or killed," she says.

Studies have shown that anywhere from 25 to 65 percent of pickup fatalities occur without any collision: Swerving, taking hard turns, or slamming on the brakes can be all it takes. And a recent study at the University of California at Irvine determined that cargo passengers are eight times more likely to die than those in the cab who are buckled in. The end result: More than 150 people die each year, and close to half of them are children and teens.

Smart Safety Steps:

The only prevention is not to let your children ride in the back of a pickup truck -- period. "Kids aren't cargo," DeBlois says.

On a January afternoon several years ago, Dallas mom Mandy Golman finished up some shopping for her 18-month-old daughter, Macy, and was heading back to the office. "I thought I'd use the ride to catch up with my mother," she says. So she picked up her cell phone and dialed. Minutes later, as the 28-year-old college educator took a left turn into traffic after stopping at a stop sign, an SUV that had the right of way came barreling toward her. Golman slammed on her brakes, and the SUV's driver swerved to miss her. "He still hit me," she says. "Right across the front, tearing off my license plate as if it were paper."

Her heart pounding, Golman instantly realized that her cell phone had distracted her so much that she hadn't looked carefully before she turned. She eyed the empty car seat behind her. What if my daughter had been with me? she wondered. "I never talk on the phone anymore while driving," she says.

Scary Facts:

More than 107 million Americans now have a cell phone, and as many as 85 percent use one while driving. Yet research suggests that this habit greatly increases your risk of being in a crash, perhaps by as much as 400 percent. U.S. and European studies show that phone-chatting drivers have significantly slower reaction times. And a Canadian study concluded that talking on the phone is nearly as dangerous as driving while intoxicated.

Frances Bents, coauthor of the 1997 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report on the subject, says the danger is extreme. "Talking on a cell phone steals your attention away from driving," she says. "That's why cell-phone collisions are almost always linked to leaving your lane or failing to stop. Both actions have horrendous consequences."

Smart Safety Steps:

  • If you need to make a phone call, stop driving and park your car in a safe place.
  • Don't be fooled by headsets. They may seem to make calling safer, but you still have to look down to dial the phone, and the distraction of the conversation is the primary hazard.
  • Don't answer the phone while driving. A Japanese study determined that nearly half of all cell-phone-related crashes occurred while the driver was scrambling to do just that.

04-01-2001

Copyright © 2001 Hal Karp. Reprinted with permission from the April 2001 issue of Parents Magazine.