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Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 12:26:07 PM CST

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Caroline Thompson/MEDILL

A baby doll is tightly strapped into his car seat by Safety Squad's Brooks Watson, a firefighter on a mission to educate parents on car seat care.

When it comes to car seat care, parents should sweat the small stuff

by Caroline Thompson
Nov 13, 2013

Freaking out over small, seemingly insignificant details is a hallmark of modern parenting. While those who submit to the temptation are often dismissed as being overbearing and irrational to the point of hysteria, when it comes to car seat safety, the devil is indeed in the details.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, car crashes are the leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 13. Sadly, many of these tragedies are triggered by small errors in car seat installation made by parents or guardians without proper knowledge of the process.

“What I saw over time,” firefighter Brooks Watson said, “is that parents didn’t have a resource to learn how to install car seats correctly.”

Concerned about the lack of education available for parents in this area, Watson started Safety Squad, a private, Chicago-based company “created to clarify the message that parents get around car seats and teach them how to install car seats for themselves.”

Watson said parents get conflicting messages about car seat safety from befuddling installation videos that are too general to cover the nuances of their individual cars and carriers.

“What we’ve found is that very often these videos confuse parents or give them a false sense of security,” Watson said. “So what we prefer to do is show parents what not to do.”

First on Watson’s list of common car seat safety mistakes is positioning the seat in the car.

“Parents often don’t know that the middle is the safest,” Watson said. “The middle seat is 43 percent safer than the sides.”

This is due to the prevalence of side impact crashes, as well as the tendency for cars to rotate during an accident, but side car seat installation is often encouraged by the placement of car seat latches in the back seats of many cars.

“Since 2002, the government has required every vehicle manufacturer to have two sets of lower latch anchors. These are metal rings that are built into the seat, and they allow for easier car seat installation. The problem is that they only require two, and they usually put them on the sides.”

Lakeview nanny Ashley Crawford has ample experience with this. The childcare professional said her current car seat is installed on the side, and she had trouble locating and installing the seat using the provided latches.

“The hooks that go behind the seat, it was hard to get the seat hooked in,” Crawford said. “I actually had to have a man—a friend of mine—do it for me. He was strong enough to put the clips in place.”

This is why Watson wants parents to know that using the provided latches is not the only way to get a safe, sturdy installation.

“There’s a feature on most infant seats called a lock-off. This makes the middle installation much, much easier.”

The lock-off utilizes the back seat’s seat belts and, when done properly, can provide the same protection to the child as using the latches.

Once a car seat base is installed, Watson urges parents to double-check the level and tightness of the base. Most car seats come with a built-in bubble level that enables parents to easily assess the level of their child’s seat.

When it comes to tightness, there should be no movement in the seat when attempting to rock it from side to side.

But deadly mistakes can be made even after a car seat is safely installed. Parents also need to be extra vigilant about properly strapping their child in to the seat.

“The shoulder straps need to be at the appropriate level,” Watson said. “For an infant, the harness slot should be at or below the baby’s shoulder. Another thing to think about is tightness. You shouldn’t be able to pinch up and down on loose fabric on the baby’s harness.”

Watson also said car seat should not be used to transport kids outside the car.

“A car seat carrier isn’t really meant for carrying children outside the car -- it’s called a ‘car seat’ for a reason,” Watson said. “It’s not so great because the child is placed in a position that restricts airflow in the trachea, and it also puts a lot of pressure on the back of the baby’s head.”

For her part, Crawford said she tries to keep an eye out for these kinds of subtle mistakes, once even going as far as contacting a friend on Facebook who posted a picture of a child incorrectly strapped into a car seat.

“I read the entire [instruction] manual, but I do that with everything,” Crawford said of the process of installing her current car seat. “It made sense to me because I’ve worked with a lot of different car seats, but I know for a lot of people it can be difficult for them to understand and install without help.”

And Watson recommends parents who aren't sure they're doing it right to seek outside help.

"Read the manuals, both the car seat and the car manuals. Work with a child passenger safety technician, someone who is certified to teach you how to do this properly."

It may take a bit of extra work, but parents who master car seat care will have one less thing to worry about.