Safety seats for children are no laughing matter


February 23, 1997|By Mike Burns

THE WHITE HOUSE flack played it for laughs before the White House press corps, a calculated soft sell for an increasingly hard customer.

"You never know how to get the little thingy in through the back and get it stuck into the little dealy that goes in the side," press secretary Mike McCurry explained about the trouble with installing child safety seats. He started the audience laughing.

"You never know whether it's plugged in or not, and then your child goes flying over when you are turning too fast to the right," he continued. "And you know, everything goes over and the juice bottle goes all over the place and -- you know, it's a mess." More guffaws and giggles in appreciation of the Dave Barry routine.

Only it is no laughing matter. Hundreds of helpless young children are dying in traffic accidents each year as a result of such cavalier attitudes toward safety seats, as Mr. McCurry's boss recognized in announcing a required stan-dard system for attaching child safety seats by 1999.

Child safety seats are not used 40 percent of the time they should be. And 80 percent of the car seats that are used are improperly secured, regulators say.

This despite studies that show safety seats reduce the risk of death or serious injury to infants by 70 percent, and for all preschoolers by 50 percent.

These are sobering statistics, as easily confirmed by the experience of troopers at Westminster's state police barracks as by the panel of experts assembled by the U.S. Department of Transportation to study the problem.

They could recount the horror stories of children killed or maimed because they were not in safety seats.

They could list the excuses of parents who claimed the kids wouldn't stay in the seats, that they were just driving on a short errand, that they were running late, that they needed to hold the child to feed or comfort him. Or the incredible excuse that they couldn't afford a seat to protect their children -- and to comply with the law in most states.

(Maryland has the 4-40 law: Safety seats required for children younger than 4 years or those who weigh less than 40 pounds. Kids under 16 must use a safety seat or safety belt.)

The noncompliance rate is worse than for adult safety belt use, where adults at least can make their own decisions.

A year ago, Anne Arundel County police checked cars entering and leaving elementary school parking lots one morning. They found 122 child safety seat violations in 670 cars. Officers returned in the afternoon -- and found some repeat offenders, giving the same excuses.

But the primary reason for the nonuse or misuse of safety seats is that they are too hard to attach, and in some cases impossible to secure properly.

With 100 different models of safety seats on the market, and 900 different passenger vehicle models, that's understandable.

The need for a universal attachment standard for child safety seats has been obvious for years. Safety seat manufacturers argued that innovation and competition would produce a safer product than would rigid regulation.

Standard latches

The study panel recommended the system adopted by President Clinton: standard buckles at the base of all safety seats, which would attach to standard latches in the back seat of every new car. A standard buckle-latch system would also secure the top of the safety seat to the car's interior.

It will increase the cost of safety seats -- by nearly the cost of one tankful of gas. Heaven help the custodian of a small child who says that's too much to pay for her safety. Especially with various programs available to provide safety seats at little or no cost to needy motorists.

There is no question that child safety seats are cumbersome, and extremely difficult to properly attach. It can be a frustrating, maddening experience to thread the seat belt through the frame and click it into the seat buckle. Directions for different models vary as much as Swahili does from English.

Switch safety seats with another driver and you're guaranteed a new learning experience; it would be far easier, and less time-consuming, simply to switch autos.

And yet, a caring parent knows the job needs to be done properly, that too much is at stake, that the child can't protect himself.

There's no joke in the prospect of a defenseless baby's being thrust face first like a missile into the back of a driver's seat. The humor escapes me of an improperly seated toddler flying into the side of the door as your car rounds a sharp turn. Juice bottles and other things may fall from the seat with minimum concern. But not a young child whose life is in the hands of a nonchalant driver.

Mandating a standard attachment system will undoubtedly improve the use of child safety seats. It is a welcome response to a significant aspect of the problem.

But the most important response is the one that parents and other custodians of children must make to assure that the safety seat they have today is securely fastened and properly used.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 2/23/97

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