Cars are such an everyday convenience that it's easy to forget how dangerous they can be. But the frightening reality is that even the shortest drive can turn catastrophic: More than 240,000 kids under age 16 are injured in car crashes every year, and another 1,700 are killed.
The NHTSA estimates that, at any given time, more than 70 percent of young automobile passengers are exposed to potentially fatal consequences because they're not properly strapped in. These are the most common slipups that you need to avoid.
Misty Ennis was preparing to head out for a short trip to the store with her husband and their son, Chanse, when she heard a horrifying scream. She raced outside, where she saw her 3-year-old boy lying on the ground. "I think I backed up into him," her husband yelled.
Chanse was lucky: His parents rushed him to the hospital, where doctors were able to repair a broken leg and a broken arm. Two years later, he is a healthy kindergartner -- but he's become a vocal safety advocate, always telling friends, "Watch out for cars."
Most parents worry about avoiding accidents on the road, but nearly a hundred children under age 4 are killed annually when somebody backs over them in a driveway or parking lot, according to Janette Fennell, president of Kids and Cars, a safety advocacy group. Another 2,400 or so are hurt during back-over accidents. Adding to the tragedy is the fact that, in many cases, the driver is a parent or another family member.
These accidents typically happen when a curious toddler ventures out of the house or yard and into the driveway -- and a parent doesn't see him. Since every car is surrounded by at least a few blind spots -- more if it's an SUV, pickup truck, or other large vehicle -- the stage is set for catastrophe.
Because there has been a spike in the number of back-over accidents in recent years, Democratic Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican Representative Peter King of New York and several other members of Congress have begun pushing for legislation that would require cars to have warning systems capable of detecting people or objects behind a vehicle. But even if the law passes, it won't go into effect until model year 2010 at the earliest.
For now, some auto manufacturers offer warning systems as an option, but experts say that time-tested, low-tech safety checks work best. "It's important that you know exactly where your child is and that you check around your vehicle before you get behind the wheel," says Fennell. "And once you're in the car, make sure that you always use your mirrors and that you back up slowly."
Find an expert to help install your car seat on the NHTSA's Website. To get your own car-seat installation inspected by a specialist, go to seatcheck.org or call 866-SEATCHECK.
Safe Kids Worldwide offers a car-seat inspection-station locator.
The NHTSA gives ratings and other info on 100 car-seat models.
The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia provides safety information on car seats and boosters.
Two similarly named organizations -- Kids in Cars and Kids and Cars -- provide safety information on their Websites.
The American Academy of Pediatrics publishes a comprehensive set of car-seat guidelines.