What to look for -- and what to avoid -- when choosing a car.

October 03, 2005

What to Look For

Safety is one of the most important considerations when buying a family vehicle. Knowing that, manufacturers offer a number of safety features you should look for. Here are a few you should consider:

  • Manual air bag on-off switch. Vehicles with no backseat, or a backseat that is too small to hold a child seat, may be equipped with a special switch that lets the driver control the passenger air bag. The switch has a warning light that must be clearly visible to all front seat passengers that will tell them when the air bag has been turned off. A rear-facing child seat should NEVER be placed in the front seat of a vehicle equipped with an active passenger air bag. Infants and children can be injured -- or even killed -- if the air bag deploys. Refer to the vehicle owner's manual for information on the proper use of the air bag on-off switch.
  • Rear center seat lap and shoulder belts. All rear center seats must be equipped with at least a lap belt. As an added feature, some manufacturers include lap and shoulder belts in rear center seats. This benefits older children and children in booster seats who are often seated in the rear center position.
  • Built-in child seats. These permanent seats are designed to restrain children at least 1 year old and over 20 pounds in a forward-facing position. Because they are built into the vehicle, these seats are an effective restraint system for children. Built-in child seats have an advantage over add-on child seats because they do not have compatibility problems with the vehicle's seat design or seat belt systems.
  • Adjustable upper belts in the rear seats. Because seat belts must fit people of various sizes, including children, some manufacturers offer adjustable anchors that allow you to change the height of the shoulder strap. This feature allows adjustment and may improve the fit for the passenger. Check the manufacturer's instructions to adjust seat belts in your vehicle properly.
  • Lower anchorages in the rear seats. Each lower anchorage will include a rigid, round rod or bar, onto which a hook or jawlike buckle or snap can be connected. The bars will be located at the intersection of the vehicle seat cushion and seat back. This feature allows a child safety seat to be securely connected into the vehicle instead of being held by the vehicle's belt system.
  • Interior trunk releases. This feature is intended to benefit individuals, especially children, who inadvertently lock or trap themselves in the trunk of a vehicle. These systems are designed to be easily seen inside a closed trunk so that victims trapped inside a trunk will be able to quickly locate the release mechanism. As of September 1, 2001, all passenger cars with trunks are required to come equipped with internal trunk releases.

What to Avoid

Here are some car features that might cause your child to be less safe in the car or make mandatory safety precautions more difficult.

  • Two-door vehicles. It can be difficult to install a child seat correctly because you have to get into the backseat yourself to install it securely. It can also be difficult to get your child in and out of the child seat.
  • Small backseats. The backseats of small cars and many pickup trucks are too small to properly accommodate some child seats, especially those in the rear-facing position. In addition, some rear center seat belts in small cars are too close together to fit child seats with wide bases. Wide bases may also block access to buckles for outboard lap and shoulder belts. In this case, try a child seat with a narrow base.
  • Deep bucket seats. Many child seats will not fit in vehicle seats with deep buckets. Try a child seat with a narrow base or top tether strap.
  • Slope of backseat. Rear-facing child safety seats should be reclined at about a 45-degree angle. The slope of the vehicle seat may raise the back of the child seat too much, putting the infant in an upright rather than reclined position. To remedy this situation, use a tightly rolled towel or newspaper or a firm, solid-core piece of foam to help achieve the correct angle. Always check the child seat instructions and vehicle owner's manual for correct installation.
  • Contour of backseat. While the center of the rear seat may seem the safest place for a child, many backseats have a hump in the center, making it difficult to install a child seat correctly. The safest position in the backseat is where the child seat fits securely.
  • Splits in bench seats. Splits in wide bench seats can make it difficult to install a child seat correctly.
  • Forward-anchored belts. If the seat belt extends from the seat forward of where the back and seat cushions meet, the child seat may be too loose. Move it to a different rear seating position, or try a different style child seat with a top tether strap, provided the vehicle has a top tether anchorage.
  • Pickup truck jumpseats/extended cabs. Child seats will not fit properly in many pickup truck rear seats. There is not enough space between the rear of the front seat and the child to allow forward motion in the event of a crash or even a sudden stop. Side-facing jumpseats are not safe for a child seat under any circumstances.
  • Vehicles manufactured before September 1, 1995. Some vehicles may have seat belt systems -- such as automatic seat belts -- that require additional hardware to install child seats correctly. Be sure to read both the vehicle and child seat manuals and labels on any seat belts.

Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

American Baby

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