The next time you go shopping for a family car, don't just kick the tires. Take the car seat along and make sure it fits. You could save a child's life.
That was just one of the points made this week when the Automobile Club of Southern California, noting that car crashes are the leading preventable cause of death among young children nationally, launched a car-safety campaign in conjunction with Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.
"According to 1996 statistics, 46 children aged 4 or younger died in car crashes in California," said Arline Dillman, traffic safety expert for the Auto Club. "Two-thirds of those children were unrestrained. Some might still be alive if proper safety precautions had been taken."
The National Child Passenger Safety Week campaign has a double focus, said the Auto Club's Carol Thorp: to think about child safety when buying a car, and to make full use of safety equipment once you have it.
"Car manufacturers have become much more interested in child safety design in recent years," Thorp said. "When you have the option of a car with more safety features, take advantage of it."
Trying out the car seat is an important preventive step, she said, noting that there are more than 100 models of child safety seats and more than 300 models of passenger vehicles with a wide range of belt systems.
As a guide for consumers, the club has rated 80 models of cars, light trucks and vans for vehicle safety features including air bag on-off switches, rear center seat lap-shoulder belts and built-in car seats.
The ratings and other safety tips will be published in a brochure, "Buying a Safer Car for Child Passengers," which should be available later this month at all local Auto Club offices.
In the meantime, the club offers this checklist to take when shopping:
* Are there enough safety belts for everyone?
* Do lap safety belts fit children who have outgrown safety seats and booster seats?
* Can a child safety seat be installed correctly in the back seat?
* Do safety belts have locking features for safety seats?
* Is head restraint protection available?
* Does the vehicle have safety door locks?
* Can individual window controls be overridden by a master safety lock?
Both the Auto Club and Childrens Hospital recommend that all children 12 and younger ride in the back seat, where they are 27% safer than in the front. Children should be buckled up no matter where they sit, and should never ride in the cargo area or bed of any vehicle, even if it is covered, because a crash, sudden stop or rough ride can throw them from the vehicle.
The new brochure is a companion piece to "Buying a Safer Car," which contains a full range of safety-feature information. More information is available by contacting the federal Department of Transportation Auto Safety Hotline at (800) 424-9393 or online at http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov.