Car seat crusader takes child safety upon herself Buckling Down

September 08, 1995|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,Sun Staff Writer

Car seats are everywhere. In the laundry room. In the den. In the shed. At her sister's house. They've taken over Debbie Baer's house, and they've taken over her life.

Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn't call the 47-year-old Pikesville nurse for advice on buying car seats or help in installing one. She often invites callers over so she can personally inspect their car seats.

Then there's her parking lot crusade. Wherever she goes, Mrs. Baer scouts for improperly installed child seats. The trunk of her white Lincoln Continental holds a file drawer of copies of articles on every possible problem with them. When she spots a wobbly seat, or a recalled one, she runs after parents to discuss it. Sometimes she leaves a note on the car's windshield, along with instructions on how to fix it, and her name and number for more information.

"People think if they put their kid in a car seat, that's enough," says Mrs. Baer, president of the Maryland Child Safety Passenger Association.

It turns out there's a lot more to it than that -- and the way cars are being designed is making it harder for parents to get it right.

"People who care still misuse their seats," Mrs. Baer says.

Her car seat campaign evolved from her 25 years of work as a labor and delivery nurse at Sinai Hospital, where she monitored high-risk expectant mothers from 1976 to 1984.

She got to thinking it was silly for nurses to spend so much time saving babies and then send them home in their parents' arms. When her second child was born in 1984 and she stopped working full-time, Mrs. Baer volunteered to hand out car seat safety information in supermarkets during National Transportation Safety Week.

L She now volunteers 40 to 50 hours a week to car seat issues.

"I try not to do it on Saturday, my Sabbath," she says. "But in the Jewish religion, the saving of a life takes precedence over everything else. I could save someone's life, so I will do it."

Mrs. Baer fields calls for SafetyBeltSafe USA, a California based non-profit group, about child seat safety. Her advice to dozens of callers each month ranges from whether a car seat is still usable to installation instructions so it won't rock from side to side.

Parent confusion and anxiety is running higher than usual these days because of a recent article in Consumer Reports that warns that one of the most popular car seats, the Century 590, failed the magazine's crash tests. The seat came right out of the base in a test crash at 30 mph with a 9-month-old-sized dummy, the magazine reported.

The manufacturer says it's safe -- the seat passed its own retests, and Mrs. Baer tells people they can continue using the seat with the base if they want. But she adds, "If it was my kid, I'd probably use it without the base."

Since she began giving advice on car seats in 1984, the problem of improperly installed car seats has gotten worse, not better, Mrs. Baer says. It is growing because cars are getting more difficult to use and because instruction manuals are poorly written.

She tells people to avoid two-door cars, cars with humps in the middle back seat, and new cars with seat belts positioned four or five inches forward of the crack where the back and bottom of the seat meet. Manufacturers are installing the belt here so it will rest on the top of an adult leg rather than on the abdomen. But it doesn't work with child car seats.

Spreading the word

As president for the past seven years of the Maryland Child Safety Passenger Association, Mrs. Baer retools old car seats and helps distributes thousands of donated new ones.

She teaches an eight-hour course on the history of car seats to nurses and paramedics and is trying to get more hospitals to hold car seat safety classes for obstetric nurses. She also has approached area car dealers to offer classes about car seats to sales reps. "Car dealer sales people don't know a blessed thing about car seats," she says. So far, two have agreed.

Mrs. Baer also runs car seat safety clinics in the parking lot of the Giant on Old Court Road.

"People either come willingly or I grab them," she says.

Stopping people to discuss their car seats is time-consuming and, to Mrs. Baer's 11-year-old daughter, Abigail, very embarrassing.

She and her 15-year-old sister, Alicia, "stand there and stand there," she says. It happens just about everytime they go out. "There's no day when she's not checking someone's car seat," Abigail says, rolling her eyes upward.

Tracy Lavin met Mrs. Baer in the Giant parking lot a couple of months ago.

"She has the missionary zeal of someone who is very serious," says Mrs. Lavin, an attorney who is getting ready to deliver her third child.

"I am loath to talk to strangers, male or female," she says. "I had my 2-year-old with me at the time. [Mrs. Baer] came up to me, and I did something very out of character. I opened my car door [and] I said, 'Please, check it out.' "

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