Who’s the safest passenger in the vehicle?

Parents often ask child safety seat experts what is the safest seat for their baby. Truth be told, for an infant or young child, it is not the brand of seat they purchase, but the direction they face the seat in their vehicle that will save their child’s life.  Since 2011 the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has been recommending that children stay rear-facing until age 2 or older for the best crash protection. The reasoning behind this recommendation is that rear-facing car seats support the head, neck and spine of infants and toddlers, and distribute crash forces over the entire body rather than at the harnesses. A 2007 study in the journal Injury Prevention showed that children are five-times safer when riding rear-facing, rather than forward-facing, up to age 2 or older — which is why the child in the rear-facing car seat is the safest passenger in the car.

So why do children need the extra protection of the rear-facing seat?  The main reason is that the neck and spine of an infant or young child are not fully developed and need extra protection. A small child’s head is a larger proportion of their body weight than it is for an adult — 25 percent for a child compared to about 6 percent for an adult. That extra weight needs a strong neck and spine to help support it during a crash when the head can be violently snapped forward causing a spinal injury, which can lead to paralysis or death.

Unfortunately, for many parents age 1 is often considered as a milestone that means time to turn your baby forward-facing. However, this has always represented just a bare minimum — at least 1-year-old and 20 pounds. But this bare minimum is not best practice and will not keep a baby from suffering a broken neck or spine in a crash.

It is also important to note that as a child progresses to the next step of a child safety seat, they are actually being demoted in terms of the safety provided by that seat.  Children should stay in the rear-facing infant seat until they outgrow the weight and height limit of that seat, and then move to a rear-facing convertible seat until they reach the rear-facing limit of that seat. For most convertibles the limit is 40 pounds, but now there are some seats that go as high as 50 pounds rear-facing, which could keep an average 4-year-old rear-facing. The rear-facing child will always be the safest passenger in the vehicle.

The AAP recommends that parents not be too quick to transition children to the next step, but instead to keep children in seats with harnesses as long as possible to the limit of the seat. Often times, parents move a child to a booster seat too soon. Children should be at least 4-years-old, 40 pounds, and mature enough to sit still for the entire trip before being put in a booster seat.

Among child passengers under age 5, child restraints saved the lives of an estimated 252 children in 2014 alone. From 1975 to 2014, an estimated 10,673 lives were saved by child restraints. At 100 percent child safety seat use for children under age 5, an estimated 289 lives could have been saved in 2014.  For a child safety seat to do its job right, it has to be appropriate for your child’s age, size, developmental stage, and adjusted to fit your child securely and be installed properly in your vehicle. Unfortunately, most car seats are not used correctly. The best way to make sure your child is protected is to have a free inspection by a certified child passenger safety technician in your area.

To find out more about child passenger safety or for a free inspection, contact Kate Whitney at the Extension Office at 254-435-2331.

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