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Good Carma / A Health and Consumer Guide

The Child Safety Seat Demystified

July 30, 1998|KATHLEEN DOHENY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With about 100 models of child safety seats on the market, choosing one can be a daunting chore, especially for first-time parents.

To simplify the shopping process, many customers at Baby Unlimited in Pasadena buy the highest-priced model, says manager Roy King, under the assumption that, at $220, the most expensive must be the safest.

That's not necessarily the case, says Carole Guzzetta, director of the National Safety Belt Coalition, a project of the National Safety Council. In fact, a car seat at the lower end of the price spectrum, about $50, might be just fine, she says.

"There is no one best seat," Guzzetta says. "The best one is the right one for your child."

When a seat is secured properly and used consistently, the risk of an infant dying in a crash is reduced by 69% and the risk of toddler death by 48%, according to estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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Shopping Tips: When shopping, Guzzetta advises, first look for a label that says: "This restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft." Manufacturers "have to read our standards and make sure the seat conforms," says a NHTSA spokesman. To meet the standards, the seats must be crash-tested, among other criteria.

Infant seats are made for babies from birth until they weigh at least 20 pounds and are 1 year old. Infants should face rearward in their seats in the back seat of the vehicle, ideally in the center.

(Until air bags became standard, parents were advised to place car seats in the front seat. But with the risk of injury or death from air-bag deployment, experts now say the best place is the center of the back seat--provided there is a belting system there to secure the safety seat.)

Convertible safety seats can be used first in a rear-facing position and then, when the child weighs at least 20 pounds, converted to a forward-facing position. Under California law, children must remain in a safety seat until they are 4 years old and weigh 40 pounds. At that point, experts recommend, parents can transfer them to a booster seat used with the car safety belt.

Before deciding on a car safety seat model, you can telephone either of two hotlines--(888) DASH-2-DOT or (888) 581-9181--to be sure the model has not been involved in a recent recall.

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The Fit: It's also crucial to be sure the model fits into the car or cars you'll be using it in.

Guzzetta of the safety council advises users to read the vehicle manual and the car-seat instructions to see if the seat will fit; some need special belt attachments. The hotline can also advise on compatibility questions.

Some manufacturers offer models that include tethers--safety straps to secure the seat to an anchor (a metal plate bolted into some vehicles in the back seat shelf area). Other models are "tether-ready."

NHTSA has proposed that the government mandate a standard method of attaching safety seats to cars.

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The Paperwork: After buying a car safety seat, be sure to send in the registration card so you'll be notified of any recalls. While recalls may worry parents, Guzzetta says, they are often not for serious defects; sometimes all that is needed is a new part.

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The Used Route: If you plan to buy or borrow a used safety seat, Guzzetta advises, be sure all the pieces are intact and that the instruction book is included. Also be certain it has never been involved in a crash, she says. (Likewise, manufacturers suggest discarding a new seat if it is ever involved in a crash.)

Avoid using any safety seat that is more than about 6 years old, experts suggest. The construction may have broken down, especially if the seat has been stored in a hot attic. Look for the manufacture date on the car seat, whether it is new or used. Some car seats carry expiration dates, usually allowing for a six-year lifetime.

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Getting the Habit: Once you've got the proper car seat secured safely, the last challenge is to convince your child--especially as he or she gets more mobile--to use it every time.

"It sounds kind of hokey, but if you start them young, they are used to it," Guzzetta says.

To keep children in the safety seats, parents devise their own strategies. Andria Hill of Glendale says her 2-year-old, Tanna, usually gets in and sits down without being asked. But not always.

"Sometimes, I have to use the toy trick," she adds. She keeps the back seat filled with soft toys and picks out a stuffed doll or Tanna's "security blanket" sweatshirt to keep her occupied once she's strapped in.

That's a good ploy, Guzzetta says, "but don't bring every toy you have." Limit the car collection to soft toys and stuffed animals, leaving the metal trucks and hard plastic toys at home.

"Otherwise," she says, "the toys can become flying missiles."

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Frequent Times contributor Kathleen Doheny can be reached via e-mail at kdoheny@compuserve.com.

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