You don’t need to bother with a car seat for a quick drive to the store, right? Fidgeting with straps annoys your tired kid and takes more time. But a few possible tantrums are worth it. EMS workers see first-hand what happens when someone underestimates the critical importance of car seats. 
Sadly, statistics continue to emphasize the importance of car seats. According to a Journal of Pediatrics’ study analyzing “Pediatric Mortality from Motor Vehicle Crashes in the United States,” 43% of the deaths resulted from incorrect restraints or not using a safety seat system at all.

A 1930s Convenience to 1980s Necessity

If you were born before 1980, you probably don’t remember a car seat in the family car. Early car seats in the 1930s and 1940s were actually designed to keep children still so as not to distract the driver. Raised seats were also intended to give kids a better view of the outside, so they would enjoy the ride.
By 1968, General Motors began addressing safety. Their first car seats were little more than plastic chairs outfitted with pillows. It was still a long time before everyone would be using car seats. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration hadn’t yet implemented crash tests for their 1971 car seat regulations. Child passenger safety finally became standardized in 1985. The seats and the corresponding laws continue to evolve.

Choosing the Proper Car Seat

Anyone who has ever held a baby knows to properly support his or her head. So infants obviously can’t be propped against makeshift restraint systems in the car. Car seats are sculpted to provide maximum support and protection. They feature side cushioning for the head and 5-point harnesses that restrain the hips, shoulders, and between the legs. Since vehicle seat belts and airbags are designed to protect an adult body, a child seat is necessary to accommodate a kid’s still-fragile spinal cord. Depending upon a child’s size and weight, this typically lasts until the tween years. Guidelines for choosing the right car seat may vary according to state laws, but are generally as follows:

  • Rear-facing: also known as infant-only seats, these are for children up to 1 years old or 20 pounds
  • Front-facing: usually used up to 6-8 years old, and/or 40 pounds
  • Convertible: switches from rear to front-facing
  • Booster: backless, or with a high back for extra neck support, these seats are for children 8-12 years old, up to 4’9” tall, and weighing 80 pounds
  • Combination: switches from front-forward to booster
  • All-in-one: one system which converts from rear to front-facing to booster

Use the above-mentioned safety seats in the back seat only. If a regular seat belt touches your child’s face or neck or puts pressure on their stomach, then he or she is not ready to stop using a booster seat.

Installing a Car Seat

Once you determine the right type of car seat for your child, consult the manuals for the seat itself and for your car. As with helmets, car seats may sustain unnoticeable damage, so buy new ones, instead of used. Register your car seat with the NHTSA, in case of a product warning or recall.
Install a car seat even before your baby is born. Hospitals have different requirements regarding rear-facing versus convertible seats. Although it seems optimal to look at the car seat in the rear passenger position while driving, the center is best. This further reduces injury from side-impact crashes. If you need more than one car seat, set the youngest child in the center, unless the seats must be at each side to fit properly. Furthermore, choose the side closest to the pavement, per parking preferences, to minimize that door being open to the street.
Make sure that the vehicle seat belts and the car seat’s LATCH (lower anchors and tethers for children) are threaded through the correct slots. Follow the instructions (illustrated on many models) for:

  • seat’s proper angle and positioning to cushion child’s head and body
  • adjusting harness fit (if you can pinch the belt, it’s too loose)
  • placing chest clip level with child’s armpits

Check the seat base for stability. You shouldn’t be able to slide the base, or a booster seat within the belt constraints, or move your child’s body within the seat. Remove heavy coats before placing a child in a car seat, so that the clothing doesn’t interfere with the harness fit. Place blankets over, not under, the restraints, or along the sides of a child’s body, to fill any space.

Community Programs Teach about the Critical Importance of Car Seats

Along with their primary roles as first responders, EMS and firefighters work together hosting community safety and wellness programs. Contact your local departments to see if they offer free or low-cost car seats, and when their certified child passenger safety technicians are available to assist with seat installations.
Additionally, mark your calendar for this year’s Child Passenger Safety Week, September 23rd-29th, with the 29th also being National Seat Check Saturday. It’s another great opportunity to get to know your local EMTs!
PHOTO: Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain