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Sitting Pretty

CHP's Inspection Station Is Driving Home Lessons on Child Safety Seats


Caryn Becker had been worried about her children's car seats for years. Not only did they slide a bit in the back of her car, but the Camarillo mother and her friends disagreed on how to install them.

So when Becker noticed a sign promoting a free child-safety seat inspection Tuesday in Oxnard, she turned into the inspection station set up by the California Highway Patrol and joined the string of parents looking for help.

The station drew 57 parents, mostly mothers, to the Babies-R-Us parking lot off Rose Avenue for three hours of hands-on instruction. It's part of a weeklong effort to educate motorists on the the importance of properly using safety seats.

From the questions asked, it was clear many parents are confused: How tight should the seat belt be? Do I put the safety seat in the middle or the side of the car? Do I need a clip?

The Oxnard stop was one of many inspection sites set up by the CHP over the past two years to help parents learn the intricacies of something that looks easy.

"It's not a matter of just strapping it in," said CHP Officer Dave Webb, one of the 10 officers on hand to help parents Tuesday. "If it were really simple we wouldn't have 85% of seats installed incorrectly."

In California, 38 children under the age of 4 were killed in automobile accidents last year, according to CHP statistics. Eleven were not secured in a safety seat, and 15 were improperly secured in their seats. Although none of these accidents occurred in Ventura County, one child not strapped into a seat was killed locally in 1998.

Webb said community groups and residents often call the CHP to request instruction on safety seat installation. Tuesday's inspections were aimed at reaching a broader audience.

Many of the motorists in minivans and sport utility vehicles visiting the Oxnard site said they have struggled with the seats. Becker, who has two young children, spent about 25 minutes with an inspection agent. The agent, a mother, said she felt relieved.

"I was pretty much doing it right, but it's nice to know for sure," she said. "I just want to know they're safe."

Webb said much of the confusion stems from differences in car design, location of seat belts and the need for specific placement of a seat based on a child's age and weight. Some child seats slip around slick leather while others become wedged into odd positions.

Webb said solutions can be found by using different types of specially designed seat belt clips. He also said some car designs are not very accommodating to a bulky child seat.

Tricia Lynch came by the inspection station in her Honda Accord to put to rest a disagreement between her husband and her sister over how tight a seat should be. Lynch's 8-month-old daughter, Cianna, was riding backward in a baby seat set in the middle of the car's back seat.

"My husband's an engineer and so he insists it's in right, but my sister who's had several kids said it's not right, and I just want to know," the 35-year-old Oxnard resident said.

George Myers, the CHP officer helping Lynch, agreed the seat should be more snug. He also advised Lynch it would be safer to place the seat behind either the driver or the passenger so the center armrest, which swings up and down, doesn't accidentally hit the baby in an accident.

"The safest place is the middle, but not with this sitting there ready to hit her," Myers said, pointing to the armrest.

To make sure the seats were fitted snugly, the officers knelt in the safety seat, putting all their weight on it before tugging hard at the belt. Officers also checked whether the child was placed at a 45-degree angle to prevent choking.

Myers cut off a piece of purple foam and fitted it under one child seat to prop it up at a higher angle. The officers also showed motorists how to use sticky shelf-lining paper to keep seats from sliding around on slippery leather.

Sandy Berkers was one of three parents who walked away with a new safety seat, supplied free of charge by the CHP, because inspectors determined the seat belt used for her 18-month-old daughter, Emily, was defective. The CHP keeps a stock of safety seats, provided through a safety grant, for motorists with unsafe child seats, Webb said.

"I'm stunned, really," Berkers said. "We're going on a long car trip too, so it's a relief to have one that works."

Webb said all the parents who stopped by left with safer car seats, the primary goal of the day.

"If we save one life with this event, then we've done our job," he said.

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