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Child safety and cars

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If you follow your state laws regarding child safety seats, your children must be safe in your car, right? Oh, how wrong you are. Many safety experts agree that no set of state laws currently provides for the comprehensive efforts necessary to protect children as well as they might be protected. Further, many state laws leave some children woefully unprotected even though proper measures are clear. But if you answered "yes" to our original question, you are among the majority of parents in the United States.

A new national study found that nine out of ten parents believe that if they adhere to their state's current child passenger safety laws, they will be taking adequate steps to protect their children. The survey queried 1,000 parents and caregivers with children eight years of age and younger. It was conducted by DaimlerChrysler and its free child safety seat inspection service -- Fit for a Kid -- with technical assistance from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Despite significant gains that have been made in persuading parents to properly restrain their children in child safety seats, the problem is still a serious one. Car crashes remain the number one killer of children. According to NHTSA's Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), in the 1990s 4,666 children between four and eight years old were killed in car crashes. Of these, 2,694 (58 percent) children were completely unrestrained and 1,223 (26 percent) children were incorrectly restrained in an adult seat belt. Sadly, the DaimlerChrysler survey indicated that we have a long way to go before parents understand what steps are necessary to protect their precious cargo.

The survey found that 96 percent of parents/caregivers did not know the correct age at which a child no longer requires a child safety seat or booster seat. Less than 10 percent of children between the ages of four and eight use booster seats at all, despite the consensus of safety experts that they are necessary for children between 40 and 80 pounds and up to four feet, nine inches tall. Though most children between four and eight years old fit into this category, very few of them routinely ride in booster seats.

Amazingly, such populous states as New York and Ohio allow children as young as three years old to ride completely unrestrained in the back seat or to ride using just an adult seat belt rather than in a safety seat. The often-untold story is that seat belts do not fit most children under the age of eight and can actually cause serious injury to small children in a crash. Two states -- California and Washington -- have recently passed new laws requiring children to be in booster seats but only up to age six or 60 pounds.

Both NHTSA and the National Safety Council say this isn't going far enough. They recommend the use of child safety seats, including booster seats for children up to the four foot, nine inch height ceiling. Because no state laws meet these standards, more than 20 million children are at risk of death or injury in crashes as a result.

Jack R. Nerad, managing editor of Driving Today, is the father of two small children with another on the way. He is the current record-holder for installing and uninstalling child safety seats and booster seats in various test vehicles. 

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