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December 19, 2011

Safety with Children

Parents all want the best for their children. They are thus inclined to purchase all sorts of books, toys, strollers, and gadgets for kids when preparing for a trip; they want to educate them and keep them entertained. Yet in one aspect, many parents remain negligent: safety in ferrying children in cars. How many times do you see children standing up unrestrained in the front passenger seat, or a mother carrying a kid in her lap, sometimes without a seatbelt?

Exercising Restraint

There are many misconceptions about keeping children safe in cars. Most adults driving now will remember being allowed to sit and stand pretty much anywhere in a moving car. That may seem like a lot of fun for the kids, but it’s also inherently dangerous. An unrestrained child will be thrown forward in a collision and will be injured or killed by coming into contact with the car’s interior or even airbag.

Proper restraint doesn’t mean having a kid sit on your lap with your arms wrapped around him or her. Carrying a child on your lap is a terrible way to travel, and we’re not just talking about your legs getting numb after a while. First of all, it’s impossible to hold onto a child in a serious accident. Second, when both child and adult are thrown forward by inertia, the child will become a cushion that will be instantly squashed by the adult. A seatbelt is designed to be used by only one person, so buckling up adult and child together is not a good idea either.

The reason for that is the unassailable first law of Newtonian physics: force equals mass times acceleration. Mr. Newton also formulated the second law that an object in motion will continue to travel in the same direction unless acted upon by an outside force. That inertia is what “throws” you forward when the car decelerates. A child may have a relatively small mass, but when a car suddenly decelerates, as in a collision, that 20 kilograms multiplied by a deceleration of 50 km/h, results in a force of 1,000 kg. At higher speeds, say 70 km/h, a child can weigh the equivalent of 3,000 kilograms—enough to send them flying through the windshield or to crush the person in the seat in front of her. Imagine also what that kind of force can do to a child’s fragile body.

So how do we enforce the principle of safety first while riding? The most important rule is that a child should be properly restrained while in a car. Cars are designed to be operated and occupied by adults, so kids will need some accessories to ride properly: adaptors that allow the car’s safety systems to work for them as well. That means a rear-facing baby carrier for infants, a rear-facing child seat for kids up to three years old (or 18 kilograms) and a booster seat for older children.

An infant or younger child needs to ride facing the back of the car to help protect the neck and spine, which have not yet developed fully and are especially vulnerable to injuries. Notice how a three-month old child can barely lift his head. The head accounts for 25 percent of an infant’s weight; for an adult, it’s about 6 percent. If your head weighed 15 kilograms (for a 60 kilogram adult), you’d have difficulty lifting it, too, much less keep it upright during a severe impact.  Baby carriers and rear-facing child seats are designed to distribute collision forces throughout the back, which can take the strain much better than the neck.

Parents should note that a baby carrier usually lasts for only about nine months before a child outgrows it. Instead of buying, they can borrow one instead from a trusted friend or family member, as long as the seat is in good condition and hasn’t been involved in any accident.

How to Choose and Buy a Seat

A child seat must fit your car properly. The best way is to bring your car to the store and test-fit the seat. It must be reasonably easy to install and remove. The child seat is usually attached using the car’s seatbelt so make sure the seatbelt fits; some belts may not extend far enough to buckle a large seat properly. To make installation easier, newer child seats are equipped with LATCH or ISOFIX attachments.  These are buckles or straps that attach to mounting points on the car without the need for a seatbelt. Newer cars, especially those of American and European makes have LATCH and ISOFIX mounting points in the rear seating area. It’s a worthwhile feature to consider when buying a new car.

The seat must have passed safety standards as mandated by American or European law. Look for indications that a child seat has passed such regulations. This will probably be stamped on the box, indicated in the manual, or labeled on the seat itself.

Buy a seat that suits your child’s size and weight. An infant will need a baby carrier; a toddler, a rear-facing seat; and an older child, a booster seat, preferably a booster cushion-backrest combination. The most important features of a booster are the “horns” on the child’s seat bottom.  The pelvic bones of a child have not developed the distinctive structure called the iliac crest, necessary to keep the belt from riding upward in an accident. The horns on the booster perform this function.

Comfort is also a factor. It will be more difficult to keep a child in the seat if he is not comfortable. The child must be reasonably snug in the seat, but not tightly constricted, apart from the restraints. Booster seats with “wing” projections at the head portion help keep the child’s head upright if she falls asleep.

Installing and Using

The safest place to install a child seat is in the rear seat. Never install a child seat in front if the car is equipped with a passenger airbag. If you must install a child seat in front, have the dealer deactivate the front airbag, or turn it off if your vehicle is equipped with such a switch. Some cars are now even equipped with sensors to automatically detect if a child is seated there. Kids below 140 centimeters (4 ft. 7 in.) should not ride in the front seat of a car with a passenger airbag.

Read and follow the instruction manual thoroughly. In general, you must make sure that the seat is tightly attached, with almost no movement when pushed or pulled in any direction.  The seat should be reclined at a 45-degree angle.  The LATCH or ISOFIX system makes proper installation easier, as you can use the provided mounting points instead of wrestling with the vehicle’s seatbelts.

The child must ride properly in the seat, and must buckle up using the seat’s restraints.  The restraint usually consists of a three or five-point harness. Your must buckle up your future Formula One star, just like the racing drivers do. You should be able to insert one or two fingers under the strap once it’s buckled; otherwise you have to tighten it further.

A booster seat allows the child to use the vehicle’s seatbelt as her restraint. The booster should be used with an adult lap-and-shoulder belt in the rear seat. The shoulder belt should rest snugly across chest and shoulder; and should never be placed under the arm or behind the back. The lap belt should rest low, across the lap/upper thigh area—not across the stomach.

The child still inside the mother should also be protected. Pregnant women should buckle up at all times. The diagonal portion of the belt should cross down between the breasts with no slack, and from there, on down along the side of the tummy. The lap belt must go across the tops of the thighs below the pregnant “bump”—never across the front of the tummy.

No matter how carefully you drive, there are factors beyond your control, and accidents can happen even on short drives. Even if you manage to avoid a collision, hard braking or severe maneuvers can also throw unrestrained occupants around. Without question, a car’s primary purpose is to keep its occupants safe. The car’s passive safety systems—seatbelts, airbags and crumple zones—can only do that if you use them properly. Keep everyone buckled up, especially children. They are your car’s most precious cargo; keep them safe whenever you drive.

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