— John Sabo
A: Absolutely, John. It doesn't matter if it's a 2002 Chrysler or a 2012 Cadillac. Child-safety seats for kids under the age of 8 are highly recommended by safety experts. More importantly, they're required by law in Pennsylvania and every other state.
The details vary from state to state. Pennsylvania specifies that kids under 4 must be buckled into approved child-safety seats "no matter where they ride in the vehicle," according to the state Driver's Manual. Children ages 4 to 7 must be buckled into approved booster seats, also anywhere in the car.
Kids in the 8- to 17-year age group must wear "regular" seat belts, front or back. (For anyone age 18 or older, the mandate applies only to the front seats, and it's a secondary offense, meaning you can be cited only in conjunction with another violation.)
Under no circumstances should any passenger hold a child in his or her arms in a moving automobile. That's not to say it's never done, and often when people drive with children not properly secured nothing happens, fortunately. However, it would be most unfortunate to think that "getting away with it" in some instances renders the practice safe. You're tempting fate every time.
Less than two years ago, a Slatington couple lost their year-old daughter to this kind of circumstance on Route 329 in North Whitehall Township, and these tragedies aren't nearly rare enough. Federal statistics show that auto accidents are the leading cause of death for kids age 3 to 14, and as of 2008, unrestrained children accounted for nearly half of all crash fatalities among those 14 or younger.
There's a Hummer's worth of statistics out there, all weighing hugely in favor of proper restraint use. The Federal Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that properly installed child-safety seats reduce the risk of fatal injury by 71 percent for infants and 54 percent for toddlers.
It's important to use the specified restraints based on the size of the child, and also to attach and secure the seats correctly. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly three-quarters of child seats in one study were improperly attached in ways that could increase the risk of injury.
Some estimates of misuse range much higher. Bill McQuilken, a certified child-passenger safety specialist with Lehigh Valley Hospital's car seat check program, said his experience suggests "about a 98 percent misuse rate." Even minor errors can be consequential, he said. Hooking a clasp from the child seat to its anchor upside-down, for example, can weaken the support offered by the clasp in some designs. It's important to read the installation instructions for both the child seat and the automobile, and many parents don't take the time to do so, McQuilken said.
Even for careful parents, it's not always as easy as it could be to secure the seats properly, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit funded by insurance companies. Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children is a system intended to standardize and simplify effective restraint attachment in newer vehicles (basically since 2003), but IIHS and University of Michigan researchers found room for improvement in the systems on many models. Their study concluded that the lower anchors in some LATCH systems are buried too deeply within the crevice (known as the "bight") between the seat-back and the cushion, and access to the anchors can be blocked by belt buckles or other hardware.
Consumer Reports evaluates the child-seat attachment characteristics of every car model reviewed, often detailing differences between individual seating positions. Its researchers find some LATCH anchors difficult to reach as well.
The CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and other agencies agree that rear-facing child seats attached to the rear seat are ideal for infants until age 2 or kids outgrow them, reaching the seat's height and weight limits. Parents then should transition to front-facing seats, and finally boosters, which raise the body to allow the shoulder belt to fit properly across the torso. Rear-seat placement is specified throughout.
"It is important to note that every transition is associated with some decrease in protection; therefore, parents should be encouraged to delay these transitions for as long as possible," the AAP states.
McQuilken said child-seat manufacturers have been increasing the weight capacities of their products to help parents meet the longest-use goal, and he favors size over age in transition decisions.
"There's no rush," he said.
In safety-conscious Sweden, parents stick with rear-facing child seats till age 4, he said.
Rear-seat passengers statistically are safer than those in front regardless of passenger size or age, McQuilken said. By that measure, every passenger should ride in the rear whenever possible, even with only two people in the car, though that might seem impractical to most people.
Extensive car-seat information is provided at the websites of the agencies previously cited, among many others. In addition, hospitals, police departments and other agencies offer information and events. For more on Lehigh Valley Hospital's program, including two free car-seat clinics each month, call 610-402-CARE (2273).
Deanna Shisslak, McQuilken's colleague for the LVH safety checks, said the well-attended sessions include not only parents, but a good many grandparents for whom child-passenger safety is a relatively new realm not stressed as intently when their kids were young.
"We're seeing a huge surge in grandparents," she said.
Despite intensive public information and enforcement campaigns, adult seat belt usage rates lag behind the ideal as well. Last year, 513 unbelted deaths were reported in Pennsylvania — 40 percent of the 1,286 statewide traffic fatalities. Those stats don't seem to mesh with PennDOT's estimate of 84 percent seat belt compliance overall; perhaps unbelted motorists tend to be less careful behind the wheel in other ways, too.
According to IIHS, state laws require seat belt use for drivers and front seat passengers throughout the nation, with one exception: There's no mandate in libertarian New Hampshire, where the motto, perhaps appropriate in this instance, is "live free or die."
Road Warrior appears Mondays and Fridays, and the Warrior blogs at mcall.com. Email questions about roadways, traffic and transportation, with your name and the municipality where you live, to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Road Warrior, Box 1260, Allentown, PA 18105-1260.