Keep Your Family Safe: Take Home Messages from a National Safety Meeting

What’s new in car seat designs and features? How are they becoming easier to use and more protective? What is the real-world side of the new Federal regulations being put in place? Many of these questions were answered at a gathering of safety leaders last week, and attendees walked away with shared information, ideas and best practices. The ultimate goal was to empower the families we serve to protect themselves against the biggest killer of young Americans – motor vehicle crashes.

The Lifesavers Conference is the only national highway safety meeting of its kind, helping participants prevent deaths and reduce injuries on the road. Sessions address a variety of risk areas, from the very technical to the programmatic needs of attendees. The 32nd annual conference was held in Nashville TN, with over 2,000 attendees representing every state and territory of the United States. I have attended 19 of the past 20 of these events, and I am confident that this year’s was one of the most useful yet.

While much of the research presented was advocate- or industry-specific, some very important lessons for parents, grandparents and children were reinforced by new research and information. Here are some of the most important take-home messages:

No One in the Car is Protected Unless EVERYONE is Buckled Up

Experts and advocates have always known that children learn more from watching the adults in their lives than from what we tell them to do or make them do while they are in our care. One of my favorite examples illustrating this occurred when I was helping a family and the mom complained that her 3-year-old son was “always unbuckling his car seat harness and trying to climb out.” I went through my checklist. Was the car seat right for him? Was the harness height correct? Were the harnesses snug enough? Everything checked out. Then I went to the next level, asking if everyone else in the car buckled up every ride. His mom emphatically said “I ALWAYS wear my seatbelt!” His dad remained silent and started avoiding eye contact with me. He sheepishly looked away and I received the non-verbal answer to my question. Dad didn’t wear his seat belt – at least not on every ride.

When you think about it, it’s pretty obvious. A 3-year-old child wants to emulate the adults and older children in his environment. Of course he wanted to be unbuckled.

Now let’s take an unbuckled adult  to another level – one that state agencies and legislatures are beginning to take quite seriously. Crashes are violent events that involve a lot of energy. Depending on the specific crash, unsecured objects or people are moving with hundreds or even thousands of pounds of force – and the laws of physics tell us that they will keep moving with great speed and force until something (or someone) stops them.

Let’s revisit our example of the 3-year-old in a car seat, should the family have a crash. Even if he was correctly secured, his unbuckled dad would be violently thrown with a force equal to many times his actual weight. What if the “object” that stopped the dad was the 3-year-old… or the side of his car seat near his head… or the mom? Suffice it to say that the damage and injuries would not just be experienced by the dad.

In this context, I will repeat the take-home message: no one in the car is protected unless EVERYONE is buckled up.

Don’t Be in a Hurry to “Graduate” Your Child to the Next Level

There are four basic stages of restraint that can help protect us in motor vehicle crashes. The most protective restraint category faces the rear of the vehicle, often referred to as “rear-facing”. The next category faces the front of the vehicle and has its own internal harnesses, “forward-facing”. The third category involves belt-positioning boosters that help seat belts protect better for children who have outgrown harness restraints but are not yet adult-sized. They are like adapters that keep seat belts on the strong, bony areas of a child’s body.  The final category is the seat belts that are in most vehicles but only work right if they fit properly and are used correctly. Each of these categories has many variations, among them features appropriate for specific users, protection-enhancing features and convenience features that make the system easier to use.

As the father of four (now grown) sons, who has interacted with many parents both personally and professionally, I know that it is quite common for parents to be very proud of their kids. Oftentimes this pride includes parents thinking that THEIR kids are more advanced than other children. One of the manifestations of this pride is “graduating” kids to the next restraint level prematurely. Combine that with forward-facing harness seats and booster seats being easier to use and that decision is inappropriately reinforced.

As we move the above progression of restraint categories, the level of protection is reduced. For example, multiple studies have proven that rear-facing restraints are 71% effective at reducing fatal crash injuries for small children, while forward-facing restraints with harnesses are 54% effective. One study of real children in real crashes showed that for children from age 1 to age 2, rear-facing restraints are 5 times as safe. What those studies illustrate is that “graduation” to the next restraint category actually should not occur until it has to, following the labels and instructions of the specific system.

The take-home message is to reach the maximum limits of one category before moving a child to the next category. By following that rule of thumb, your family will remain as protected as possible.

Follow the instructions for YOUR Car Seat and YOUR Vehicle

One of the hot topics in the media and at the Lifesavers Conference was the new Federal regulations for car seats. Beginning this year, car seat makers must test with a new crash dummy that represents a 50th percentile 10-year-old. Car seats and boosters for use by children weighing more than 65 pounds must pass crash tests with this 77-pound dummy. In addition, car seats must be labeled with installation system limits for what we refer to as “lower anchors”.

Since 2005, car seat regulations applied to devices made for kids who weighed up to 65 pounds. After that weight, voluntary testing was designed and performed by individual manufacturers to ensure that their products were safe for their entire weight ranges. In 2014, car seat regulations now go to 80 pounds, which means more compliance testing and more requirements. Voluntary testing by manufacturers also continues, further enhancing product safety.

What we are already seeing and will see more of is changes to the weight limits for certain car seat models. They may go to lower weights or higher weights than similar models did in the recent past. That begs the question of which limits to follow, and the answer is easy. YOUR car seat came with instructions that were required at the time it was made. It was thoroughly tested to verify its safety for THAT weight range and it continues to be safe for THAT weight range. Consumers and advocates should never override the instructions that come with a product unless encouraged to do so by the specific manufacturer.

Now on to “lower anchor” limits. “Lower Anchors” are part of a system most know as “LATCH” (Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren), but may also be called ISO-fix, Universal Anchorage System or other names. Regardless of what we call it, there is a set of anchors in newer vehicles (mostly model year 2003 and later) to make car seats easier to install. In a nutshell, parents and caregivers can choose whether to use the LATCH system or the seat belt to attach their car seats to their cars. Car seats have attachment hooks or other connectors that match up with ”lower anchors” and secure the lower part of the car seat to the vehicle as a seat belt would. The tether is a separate hook and strap that attaches the upper part of a forward-facing car seat to the “tether” anchor of the vehicle. Since the tether significantly improves protection for a child’s head and neck when forward-facing, it should generally be used regardless of which system (lower attachments or seat belt) secures the lower part of the car seat.

In evaluation testing with the 10-year-old dummy, researchers and regulators identified that many car seat models are heavier than they were in the past, and that they go up to higher child weights. This combined weight may exceed the strength limits of vehicle anchors. So car seats now must have lower anchor limits included on their labels and in the instructions. A new car seat will have those limits included on either the required label that has a list of warnings or on the labels with diagrams that show how to install the car seat with the “lower anchors” or LATCH. After your child exceeds the stated limit, the car seat must be installed with a seat belt.

The take-home message is much simpler than the way it has been stated in some reports. Most manufacturers stated their limits before 2014, and these limits were supported by testing. The new labels make it easier to identify those limits since the formulae and formatting will eventually be similar among various manufacturers, but they are not retroactive. You generally need to follow the lower anchor limits that are in the instructions for YOUR car seat and YOUR car. After that, install your car seat using the seat belt (and still attach the tether if your car seat is forward-facing).

If you want help taking a more detailed look at the specific limits for YOUR car seat and YOUR car, visit www.seatcheck.org to find child passenger safety inspection opportunities in your area.

Joseph Colella

Joe Colella is a nationally respected consultant, speaker, instructor, correspondent and advocate. Since becoming involved in occupant protection advocacy, following the 1994 death of his 3-year-old niece, he has worked on product improvement and educational efforts with many national organizations. He was also one of the original certified instructors for the National Standardized CPS Training Program, is a past Chairman of the National CPS Board, and has personally helped with education in 45 states and two foreign countries.

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