It's common knowledge that road rage, chatting on the cell phone, and driving while distracted or fatigued are not smart driving practices for anyone—but once a driver becomes a parent, there is more to keeping the family safe in the car than just standard good driving habits. A vehicle can be a dangerous piece of equipment for the children inside, and not just in a crash.
Car Seat Safety
Whether you're going on a long car trip or just driving across town, your child must be secured in an age-appropriate car seat or booster seat. Unrestrained or improperly restrained children are at risk of being seriously injured or killed in an auto crash. If you're not sure how to buckle in your child's seat properly, visit SeatCheck to find a child passenger safety seat inspection location in the United States where a certified inspector will help you properly install and use a car seat.
Installing the seat properly is crucial, but so is continuing to check that the seat is buckled securely. Children can unbuckle a seatbelt accidentally or out of curiosity, but for a car seat to protect your child, it must be firmly secured to the car.
Additionally, it is not safe to place a child younger than 12 years in a seat equipped with an airbag. Airbags can deploy even in minor accidents and seriously injure or kill young children.
Look out for Flying Objects
Do you have library books on the passenger seat, a heavy diaper bag on the floor, or sporting equipment rolling around in the car? Beware! Unsecured items can become missiles in an accident, whether they are launched in a sudden stop or fly through the car during a rollover.
"Any unrestrained object in the car can be a potential problem," says Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies, Inc. "The two main factors are how fast the car decelerates or even how fast you're braking and what the mass or shape of the object is….Objects in the vehicle do become projectiles, they do not decelerate with the vehicle."
"In 2001, an estimated 13,000 crashes occurred in which an unrestrained object caused injury to an occupant," says Kane. He recommends that parents use whatever means possible in the vehicle to secure unrestrained cargo and minimize carrying heavy unrestrained objects. Keep smaller items stowed in your glove compartment or storage area under the seat if available. Larger items should be locked in the trunk or secured in a box or cargo net. Don't forget to secure unoccupied booster seats, which could be thrown forward during an accident.
Watch Your Windows
Did you realize that the windows in your vehicle may present a deadly hazard to your family? If you didn't, you aren't alone—a 2003 Harris poll shows that 75 percent of Americans are unaware of the dangers power windows pose to children.
According to Kids And Cars, a nonprofit group that tracks auto-safety issues involving children, eight children in the United States have been strangled by power windows thus far in 2004 alone.
The danger lies primarily with American-made cars sold in the United States that have "rocker" or "toggle" switches. What happens most often in these fatalities is a child has his or her head out the car window and inadvertently leans on the power window switch, causing the window—which has 40 to 80 pounds of pressure—to choke the child.
"This is something that should never happen; it is entirely preventable," says Janette Fennell, founder and president of Kids And Cars. She explains that auto makers and the U.S. government have known about this problem for 40 years but not taken the steps to correct it by putting lever or "pull-up/push-down" switches in all cars and installing auto reverse. "Eighty percent of vehicles that are purchased in Europe have auto reverse, less than 10 percent have them in the United States," says Fennell.
In the article "Child car safety concerns," Consumer Reports details the types of window switches available in cars, and offers a rundown of the switches in popular family vehicles. Consumer Reports recommends that parents buying a new vehicle pay close attention to the design and location of window switches.
So what can parents to do help prevent this tragedy other than purchasing a new vehicle? Fennell says parents need to remain aware of power window dangers and use the lock-out switch—the switch near the driver that allows only the driver to control the windows. She also says parents consistently need to check their children prior to moving a window up or down.