Make Safety The Norm

I remember as a kid riding in the “way back” of our station wagon where the dog and I could romp or laze around at will, whether it was on our way to Columbus or Piedmont Lake or just a couple miles to K’s Foodland.

One summer my stepsister and I rode in the hatchback of her mom’s VW Rabbit, playing dolls and cards, all the way to Myrtle Beach.

Those days are long gone.

Car crashes are a leading cause of death for children in the U.S. Child safety seats are mandated by all 50 states for newborns through, in some cases, 9-year-olds.

It seems like, here in the Ohio Valley, there are certain accepted practices that are ingrained in us, no matter how many scary statistics we read or how many lives are lost. Teens guzzling beer on weekends? That’s considered perfectly normal behavior in many families. For some, getting a deep, dark tan is still desirable, so much so that many teen girls hit the tanning beds until they render themselves unrecognizable in their prom dresses.

And car seats? Many parents here don’t wear seat belts, so why should they strap their kids into car seats? Despite laws against it, I still see women with babes in arms riding down the Main Streets of the Ohio Valley, toddlers roaming freely in back seats and 6-year-olds riding in front seats.

It’s going to take some serious effort to change these norms. And while we still struggle with the basics, safety guidelines for children riding in cars are tightening up even more.

It is now recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics that children ride in a rear-facing car seat “as long as possible to the highest weight and height allowed by the manufacturer of their convertible seat.” The research shows that rear-facing car seats, even for children whose legs have to be crossed in order to fit, are much safer in a crash because of the way the force of impact is distributed.

I have seen children ages 2, 3 and even 4 still in rear-facing seats, as long as they are under the manufacturer’s recommended weight (often 30-40 pounds).

For the preschool set, moving from a front-facing, 5-point harness system to a booster seat that uses the shoulder and lap belt is NOT a “no-brainer” at age 4 and 40 pounds, like I had thought. Instead, the AAP also recommends using the 5-point system “as long as possible,” also because of crash tests that show they are safer than boosters. Think about it: straps over both shoulders and around the hips with support across the chest – vs. a strap over one should and across the hips. Some seats with 5-point harnesses hold children up to 100 pounds.

And boosters, using the lap and shoulder belt that comes in all back seats now, should be used until a child is at least 4-foot, 9-inches tall – usually between the ages of 8 and 12, according to the AAP.

I admit I considered moving my daughter to a forward-facing seat at 20 pounds and 1 year of age as a rite of passage. It was an exciting day. I took pictures.

Again, I couldn’t wait to move her to a booster at age 4 and 40 pounds. I bought it six months in advance. I rejoiced when the scale hit 40. Hallelujah, she could “unclick” herself! One less task for me, one more step toward independence for her.

If you use child safety seats in your car, you obviously are attempting to keep your child safe. But beware: three out of four car seats are installed or used improperly.

For absolutely anything you need to know about child safety seats, from the latest guidelines to proper installation techniques, visit www.healthychildren.org and type “car seats safety information” in the search field.

It doesn’t matter what’s easier or what’s cheapest or what the other parents are doing. What matters is all of us — including grandparents — do what’s necessary to keep our kids safe.

Betsy Bethel is the Life editor of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register. Her email address is bbethel@theintelligencer.net.

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