Crashes are the No. 1 killer of small children. A new study highlights one group of people who could be doing more to help parents keep their kids safe in cars – doctors in hospital emergency rooms.
The University of Michigan study found that while ERs treat 130,000 children under age 13 each year for crash injuries, many physicians don’t use the opportunity to pass along tips on car seat safety to parents.
For example, less than half of the ER doctors surveyed said their hospitals would provide advice about car seats to parents of a 2-year-old being discharged after treatment for crash injuries. And one-third of physicians surveyed didn’t know whether their hospitals provide information about child passenger safety to parents.
“I was surprised by how many physicians weren’t really sure what child passenger safety resources are available in their communities,” says Dr. Michelle Macy, lead researcher for the study and a pediatric emergency physician at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, which operates the Buckle Up program to educate parents about child passenger safety.
Common safety mistakes
More than 1,300 children died from injuries in car crashes and another 179,000 or so were hurt in 2009, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And CDC studies have found in a year’s time, more than 618,000 children age 12 and under sometimes rode in a car without using a car seat, booster seat or seat belt.
When parents do use restraints, they often make mistakes. Kathy Zents, a certified child passenger safety technician with the Safety and Health Council of Western Missouri and Kansas, says that as many as 85 percent of the parents who visit her for a car seat safety check are doing something wrong.
Here are three common mistakes parents make when it comes to child passenger safety:
1. Having car seats improperly installed. It’s common to see car seats that are installed too loosely in the car, Zents says. Seats should be able to wiggle no more than 1 inch side to side or front to back.
2. Putting the kid in the car seat incorrectly. It’s common for parents to make mistakes that decrease their children’s safety in a car seat. For example, in winter, parents often will bundle a baby in a bulky coat before buckling in the child. “If the child’s wearing a puffy coat, there’s not a secure fit,” Zents says. “In an accident, we want the car seat harness to be snug on the child – not loose.”
3. Being unaware of new information. For example, Zents says, many parents don’t know that the American Academy of Pediatrics revised its car seat recommendations in 2011. Now, it’s recommended that children stay in rear-facing car seats until they turn 2 or reach the maximum height or weight limit for the seat. “Things change constantly – car seats, vehicles and recommendations,” says Zents, noting that child passenger safety technicians must be re-certified every two years to show they’re keeping up with changes in car seat safety.
ER doctors are in a good position to educate parents, Macy says, because they have credibility and they see the injuries caused when children either aren’t restrained or aren’t buckled in properly.
Unrestrained kids might suffer head injuries, cuts or broken bones, or even could die, Macy says. Kids who are wearing just a seat belt when they should be in a car seat or booster seat plus a seat belt might suffer internal organ injuries, she says.
How to buckle up right
Experts say parents can be proactive about finding care seat safety resources. Here are four tips:
1. Brush up on car safety for kids. At SaferCar.gov, parents can obtain tips on picking the right car seat, installing it properly and securing a child correctly, Macy says. The site also offers instructional videos.
2. Read the manual. Every car seat is different, so parents should thoroughly read the manual that comes with it, Macy says. Why? Every car seat has its own height and weight limits and instructions.
3. Get a safety check. If you’d like expert help, you can meet, usually for free, with a certified child passenger safety technician in your area, Zents says. The technician can advise you on the right type of restraint to use for your child. The tech also can make sure your car seat is properly installed and being used correctly. You can find a child car seat safety inspection station near by typing in your ZIP code at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website. “I don’t think it hurts anybody to come in and have their car seat checked,” Zents says.
4. Keep your kid in the seat. Parents should use the car seat for as long as a child fits within the seat’s height and weight limits, Macy says. Keeping the child in the car seat is safer than moving him or her to a booster seat or seat belt too soon, she says.