By Rick Popely, Chicago Tribune - Despite recent laws designed to make child safety seats easier to use in cars and light trucks, a vast majority of parents still install them incorrectly.
That's the conclusion of experts such as Sean McGrath, a Crystal Lake, Ill., police officer and certified child seat inspector and instructor, who says as many as 90 percent of child seats are improperly used.
Eugene Richardson, a Streamwood Police Department public education safety officer who also inspects hundreds of installed seats annually, says that number could be low.
This chronic problem was supposed to be solved four years ago, when a universal mounting system for vehicles and child seats took effect. Called LATCH, for lower anchors and tethers for children, Richardson says its effects are limited by the number of seats available and vehicles they have to fit. For example, more than 100 child seats are on the market, and all don't work the same in every vehicle.
``One car seat may fit your vehicle perfectly and not fit in your wife's vehicle at all," he said, adding that parents often wing it when installing seats. ``You still have to read the car seat manual and the owner's manual for the vehicle, and few parents do that."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal agency that enforces auto-safety rules, will soon complete a study of the effectiveness of LATCH but did not have statistics available.
``Broadly speaking, it has cut down on misuse but not eliminated it," spokesman Rae Tyson said. ``People generally feel [the LATCH system] is easier to use, but most parents prefer using the middle position [in the rear seat], and the LATCH system is not required in that position."
When the LATCH rules took effect, the NHTSA estimated that 94 percent of parents thought they correctly installed child seats but only 20 percent did.
The rules required universal attachment points in child seats built after Sept. 1, 2002, with LATCH sites in the outboard seating positions of the rear seat.
LATCH-compatible child seats have lower attachments that hook onto bars between the vehicle's seat back and cushion and a strap that attaches to an upper tether anchor. Older seats were secured by the vehicle's seat belts; LATCH-compatible seats also can be secured with belts.
The NHTSA's study could leads to tweaks of LATCH, Tyson said.
``We'll decide whether we need to approach this with more education or whether it needs to be modified," he said.
Educating parents is key, said Crystal Lake's McGrath, who teaches proper installation at prenatal classes.
``We're trying to break their bad habits before they can start them," McGrath said. ``Any misuse can increase the chances for injuries or fatalities."
A further complicating factor is that children need a different seat as they grow
Infants younger than 1 year and weighing less that 20 pounds should be in rear-facing seats, and toddlers age 1 to 4 and up to 40 pounds should be in forward-facing seats. NHTSA recommends children more than 40 pounds ride in booster seats until they are at least 57 inches tall.
Illinois, for example, requires that children younger than 8 be ``in an appropriate child restraint system" (kids 8 and older are supposed to use seat belts), but the NHTSA says seat belts alone don't properly fit those who are shorter than 57 inches.
Illinois also allows children weighing more than 40 pounds to wear only a lap belt in the rear seat of vehicles that don't have lap/shoulder belts, but Richardson says they need to be in booster seats.
``Most parents don't have a clue about booster seats," said Richardson, who also recommends that kids stay in boosters until they weigh at least 80 pounds.
``They let their kids use the seat belt and put the shoulder belt behind them," he said.
The NHTSA says fewer than 20 percent of kids who should be in booster seats use them, though 98 percent of infants and 89 percent of toddlers are in the right kind of seat.
In 2004, 495 children younger than 5 died in vehicle crashes, and 178, or 35 percent, were in no kind of restraint. Forty-two others were secured by adult seat belts.
Being in the right seat and having it properly installed are other matters.
Richardson said he thinks the LATCH system makes it easier to install most seats but it is ``not a cure all." Though it was designed to keep from having to secure child seats with seat belts, some LATCH seats work better with the belts, he said, a process learned through trial and error.
He keeps a list of the top 10 mistakes parents make, and the most common is not securing the child seat tightly enough with seat belts. Switching to a forward-facing seat too soon is number two, followed by routing shoulder harness straps through the wrong slots on the child seat so they don't properly hold the youngster in place.
Securing child seats with ``foreign objects" ranks 10th and illustrates how desperate parents become. Richardson has seen parents use bungee cords, tie down straps, rope, and wire to try to secure a seat, none of which are advisable.
source: 2006 Globe Newspaper Company