UF Researcher: Overwhelming Majority Of Child Seats Installed Wrong
GAINESVILLE — More than 95 percent of children in child safety seats in the state could be killed or injured because the devices are not properly secured to the vehicle, says a University of Florida researcher.
“We have documentation on more than 1,500 child safety seats in vehicle inspections,” said Morya Willis, a UF engineering researcher and project director for the Florida Child Passenger Safety Program. “We discovered less than 3 percent were installed correctly. That’s just horrifying.”
The inspection statistics were compiled from a series of voluntary checkpoints statewide during the past year, Willis said. Parents could drive up with their children in child safety seats to see if the seat was installed properly and correctly fit the child.
The program, funded by the Florida Department of Transportation through UF’s Technology Transfer Center, trains law enforcement officers, fire and rescue workers, hospital personnel and safety advocates statewide on the use of child restraint systems, air bags and seat belts. There are at least 900 different car models, 1,000 car safety seats and 20 seat belt systems, she said.
Willis said she doesn’t blame parents, who are stuck with difficult-to-read instructions that are written by technicians and re-written by lawyers. Compounding the problem is the incompatibility of car seats with the seat belt systems already in place in vehicles, she said.
“Basically, vehicles and seat belts are designed for the 50th percentile male, who is about 5’10 «” and weighs 165 pounds,” Willis said.
At statewide checkpoints, the most common mistake involving child safety seats was not using the metal locking clip that comes with the car seat if the vehicle’s seat belt system has what’s known as an “emergency locking retractor,” she said.
The retractor is a mechanical device to take up and feed out the seat belt webbing, allowing the wearer to shift comfortably in the seat and still be buckled up. It locks the belt in place when there is a sudden change in momentum, such as a crash. This kind of seat belt system needs a locking clip because it slides freely until the locking mechanism is engaged, she said.
Even when the clip is used, it is often attached to the seat belt on the wrong side of the child safety seat, where it could slip or break during a crash, Willis said. It must be placed about a « inch to 1 inch from the latchplate in order to hold the two pieces of belt webbing together securely, she said.
The vehicle owner’s manual not only identifies the type of seat belt system used, but contains other useful tips for installing a car safety seat in a particular model, she said.
Incorrectly threaded harness straps and loose car seats pose another problem. “Once you install the seat, grab hold of both sides where it is anchored to the vehicle and try to jerk it forward,” she said. “If it moves more than an inch, it’s not secured correctly.”
Although child safety seat manufacturers recommend children up to 20 pounds be in rear-facing car seats, Willis’ group and the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly urge that this practice continue through the first year even if a child weighs more than 20 pounds. “A child’s body under 1 year of age is not at a stage of physical development that would enable it to withstand the force of a crash when facing forward,” she said.
And even though state law allows children to sit in seat belts once they reach age 4, they are safer in booster seats until they exceed the weight limits recommended by the child safety seat manufacturers, Willis said. A new child safety seat designed in Germany that is supposed to be available in the United States next year can be adjusted to fit a child between 9 months and 12 years of age, she said.
“A child’s body is very different from an adult’s, and it is necessary to provide additional protection for them in a crash scenario,” she said. “The most severe crashes we see people walk away from involve race car drivers. They wear a full seat belt harness system that secures them tightly in the vehicle. Ideally, that’s what our kids deserve.”