Friday, April 23, 2010

Prevent strangulation - yet another reason to "lock the belt" (i.e. switch the retractor to the automatic locking mode)

Kids will be kids.  Strapped in with nothing to do, kids will find something - anything - to play with.  Unfortunately, several dozen kids have nearly strangled to death after finding an unused shoulder belt, and in the midst of playing with it, wrapped it around their neck. 

Why can't you simply unwrap the belt, you might be thinking?  By pulling the shoulder belt out to the very end, the children have inadvertently switched the shoulder belt into a locking mode - one where the shoulder belt only gets shorter, but can not be lengthened no matter how hard you pull.  With the belt in this locking mode, it is very difficult for the child - and even the parents - to free the belt from the child's neck.

The New York Times Magazine featured an article by Matt Bai, where he writes of his own harrowing experience where his 3-year-old son Ichi nearly strangled to death while playing with the unused shoulder belt in the center seat of their vehicle. 

Make sure any shoulder belts within your child's reach are switched to their locking mode. 
For a detailed explanation of this locking mode and how to switch the belt in and out of it, please see our earlier post here.  

Safety Belt Safe has a fantastic easy-to-print tip sheet on how to keep kids safe from entanglement.
Photo above (copyright Heather Corley 2009) - is from a great article on

A few tips:

  • Teach children that seat belts are not toys. 
  • Be aware that most shoulder belts have a retractor with two locking modes - an emergency locking mode and an automatic locking mode.
    • To lock the retractor (i.e. switch it from the emergency to automatic locking mode): Slowly, without yanking, pull the shoulder belt all the way out.  As the belt goes back into the retractor, a ratcheting (clicking) sound may be heard. The belt cannot be loosened without unbuckling the belt and letting most of it go back into the retractor.
  • For any child: 
    • Make sure that any shoulder belts nearby to the child are switched to their locked mode.
    • Buckle any nearby shoulder-lap belts.  Slowly, without yanking, pull the shoulder belt out to the very end.  As you let the belt go back in you will usually hear a ratcheting (clicking) sound - this is normal.
  • For kids riding in shoulder-lap belts (with or without booster seats)
    • After the child is buckled, slowly pull the shoulder belt out all the way to lock the retractor.  This will prevent the child from being able to wrap the belt around their neck.  Don't forget to snug the belt up after pulling it all the way out. 
  • For kids riding in 5-point harness car seats: 
    • If you have used the vehicle's shoulder-lap belt to secure the child seat to the car:
      • Follow installation instructions in the manuals for the child seat and the vehicle. 
      • After installation, make sure that the shoulder belt is either locked tight without slack or that it moves freely in and out and cannot be locked.
    • If you have used the lower LATCH connectors to secure the child seat to the car:
      • First, buckle the shoulder–lap belt and lock the retractor, and remove the slack in the belt so it lies flat against the vehicle seat. 
      • Install the child seat with the lower LATCH connectors according to instructions. 
      • Note: Some vehicle manufacturers state the unused belt should be released from the buckle after the safety seat is installed.
    • Always check the owner's manual to your vehicle & child car seat as they may have specific instructions.  

Thursday, April 22, 2010

How to outsmart a squirmy worm in a booster - Use the AUTOMATIC LOCKING RETRACTOR. Learn how below...

Do you have a squirmy worm riding in a booster seat?  Is your 6 year old half way across the back seat, but still buckled into their booster?  Do you tell your child in a seat belt to "sit still" a dozen times a car ride and it doesn't seem to work?  

For many kids, the solution is as simple as putting the seat belt into a special locking mode (in technical terms, engaging the automatic locking retractor).   
**Please note: If your child is 4 or younger and/or locking the seat belt does not keep them sitting still, then we would strongly recommend the child ride in a 5 point harness that is certified for bigger kids (i.e. the harness goes to at least 60 pounds).

Almost all shoulder belts have a retractor. The retractor is the device that not only spools the excess belt, but also locks the belt so that it holds you tight in a crash.

All shoulder belts typically have an emergency locking retractor.  This means that during normal driving the belt is loose - it slides freely in and out - but locks tight in an emergency, like when you slam on the brakes.  During normal driving, with the shoulder belt in the emergency locking mode, you can lean forward and back - an amount of freedom of movement that is just too much for many children in booster seats and seat belts as they can't resist the urge to wiggle and squirm.

If your car is a 1996 or newer, the retractor is usually a switchable retractor - meaning that it can switch from the usual mode of locking only in an emergency, to a mode where it locks at all times - called the automatic locking mode.  Changing the belt from the emergency to automatic locking modes is easy - simply pull the shoulder belt out all the way (do it slowly) - when you get to the very end, let the belt go back in.  As it goes back in you will likely hear a ratcheting sound - and if you give a gentle pull you will notice that the belt is locked.

In the automatic locking mode, the shoulder belt only gets shorter - it does not get longer.  Meaning, you can not lean forward to pick up your toy or fight with your sibling on the other side of the car.  With the belt in the automatic locking mode, the seat belt holds tight at all times just like the child was used to when they were riding in a 5 point harness car seat. 

Some cars do not have a switchable retractor.  Most Jeep, Chrysler, and Dodge vehicles do not have switchable retractors - they only have the emergency locking retractor.  Other vehicles that may not have a switchable retractor are some vehicles made by GM, Ford, Saab, and Volvo. 

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Let's play - What was the car maker thinking?? (or - were they thinking at all?)

It's the disappearing center seat!

Why should you care?
  • The center of the back seat is the safest place of the car
  • Studies show kids are 43% safer if they ride in the center instead of the side
What does a "normal" center seat look like?
2010 Honda Accord Sedan
Center: 15 inches wide
What car seats might work in a narrow center seat?
  • If you or a parent you are helping have a vehicle with a narrow center seat, we at The Car Seat Lady recommend trying the Graco Snug Ride 35 (if you need an infant seat) or the Britax Marathon / Boulevard (if you need a convertible seat).  We find these two seats to fit in narrow situations where other seats won't.  However, there are some centers that are too narrow for even these seats.  While the First Years True Fit Premier has a narrower footprint than the Britax, the head area of the First Years is wider and often won't fit rear-facing in the center of the vehicle without forcing the driver to sit too close to the steering wheel (the contours at the top of the Britax tuck themselves nicely between the two front seats).  
  • For reference, the footprint of the Graco Snug Ride 35 is 9.25 inches and the Britax approximately 13 inches.
Get ready to watch the center seat disappear!
Note: All of these center positions have top tether anchors (for forward-facing car seats) - which means that someone who made the car thought it would be possible to install a car seat in this position.  I'm wondering what they were smoking?

It gets narrower...
2010 BMW X5Center: 9.5 inches "wide"
Best part: if you can find a forward-facing car seat that is narrow enough, the head rest is fixed and angled forward which prevents the car seat from resting flush against the back of the vehicle seat, and thereby prevents a tight installation
And narrower...
2010 Infiniti EX35Center: 9 inches "wide"
(check out the dual hinges the center is sporting - this center is a car seat nightmare)

and narrower...
2010 Nissan Cube
Center: a svelte 8 inches
Worst part for a car seat: the seat belt & buckle are 5 inches forward of the bight!

wait - it's almost non-existent here...
2010 Toyota Highlander - back view
My bottom hurts just looking at this center seat
2010 Toyota Highlander - front view
I didn't get to measure as I lost my tape measure, 
but the center is probably about 6 inches "wide"
Wait... it did disappear!

2011 Mini Cooper Countryman
Finally, a wise decision - if you don't have room for a center seat, don't tease us with 8 inches of a seat that is unusable for a car seat or a human body

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Monday's Mistake - Humps & Hinges - or "What was the auto maker thinking???"

This is not the typical mistake Monday - as there aren't even any car seats in most of the pictures!  The sad part is that these "mistakes" appear in real vehicles - and they make installation of car seats/boosters quite a challenge.  Unfortunately, there were many more vehicles with humps & hinges I could have shown - I just selected a few for this post.

Q: Why are hinges bad?  
A:  In order to install a car seat properly, you need to sink it down and back into the vehicle's seat cushion.  Rigid structures - like metal hinges & the plastic covers for them - prevent the car seat from sinking into the seat cushion - leaving you with a loosely installed car seat (and an unsafe child). 
2010 Toyota Venza

Is that a center seat - or just one big hinge with a little bit of fabric & cushioning?
Check out how the seat belt for the center seat is several inches into the passenger seat - gotta love the overlapping!

2010 Toyota RAV-4
Close-up of the center seat
Are you kidding me?  This is supposed to be a family car.  
Let me tell you why this center seat is a recipe for disaster for car seat installation.
  1. You have 5 inches from the buckle for the center seat to the buckle for the driver side seat.  Have you seen a car seat that is 5 inches wide?  I didn't think so - as newborns are wider than 5 inches!
  2. You have not only 2 upper hinges, but also one lower hinge cover in this center seat - all to prevent you from getting the car seat tightly installed.
  3. The "lumbar bolster" (my name for it) - will further push the car seat away from the back of the vehicle seat. 
Q: The center seat in the back has a hump.  Why are some humps bad?
A: Humps can pose a challenge for several reasons.
 2010 Acura RL Tech - hump makes the center seat 4 inches higher than the side seats
  • The foam under the center hump is often more rigid than the foam under the side seats' cushion - which means that when you try to install the seat you have to use more muscle to compress the hump so that the car seat gets tight.
  • Some humps are off center from where the LATCH system's lower anchors or the vehicle's seat belt is located.  In this picture below, the vehicle has a hump in the center.  The lower anchors for the side seat are half on the side and half into the center seat (we'll explain later on this week why they spaced the lower anchors this way).  With the car seat sitting half on the hump in the center and half off the hump, you end up with a car seat that looks drunk.   
 Lincoln MKS 2010 - Combi Coccoro using LATCH on the passenger side
  •  While most humps are on the bottom cushion of the vehicle seat - some are on the back cushion, which further pushes the car seat forward and prevents it from sinking into the vehicle's seat cushion.
2010 Nissan Maxima - with center hump protruding from the back cushion

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Buying a car? Learn about these must-have safety features before you buy.

When buying a vehicle (new or used) it's important to make sure that it will be safe for everyone - the kids & the adults. Deciding which vehicle to buy can be overwhelming, but here are some must-have safety features that might help narrow down your list. The Car Seat Lady feels that the following 3 features are non-negotiables (i.e. if the vehicle doesn't have it, I wouldn't buy it).
At the bottom are some links to crash test ratings for new and used vehicles.

  1. Electronic Stabilization Control (ESC)
    Like most people, you have probably never heard of this technology - but it is expected to save more lives than the invention of the seat belt - as it PREVENTS crashes from happening in the first place! If all vehicles were equipped with ESC, as many as 9,000 fatal crashes could be avoided each year in the US.

    Electronic Stabilization Control (ESC) systems are marketed under various names, including dynamic stability control, vehicle stability control, dynamic stability and traction control, among others. The percentage of vehicles with this technology has increased tenfold since the 1998 model year. For the 2009 model year, ESC was standard on 73 percent of new passenger vehicle models and optional on 14 percent.

    Curious about ESC? Click here for a great explanation of ESC and how it works. Curious whether your vehicle (or the one you are considering buying) has ESC? Click here to see all the vehicles since model year 1995 with ESC.
  2. Side-Impact Airbags (SABs)
    The best SABs are those that offer head protection to the front AND back seat passengers. Visit this website from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety to learn which vehicles offer side airbags. When you find a vehicle you are interested in, click on the "view details" button to learn about which type of side airbags are featured in that vehicle.  Curious if side airbags are safe for your kids - please click here to read more about the safety of SABs for ALL members of your family.
  3. Adequate cargo space
    Cargo in the passenger area just isn't safe. Things (objects, people, etc) become very heavy in a crash - they will weight their usual weight TIMES the speed of the crash. For example, a 10 lb baby in a 30mph crash will weigh 300 lbs! Unrestrained people and objects will fly around in a crash - becoming missiles that can injure the other people in the car.   Make sure you have enough trunk space so that cargo stays out of the passenger area. If buying a vehicle with a 3rd row, it is ideal to keep the third row up, allowing it to serve as a barrier between the cargo and the passengers in the 2nd row.
Two separate government agencies - NHTSA and IIHS - offer crash test ratings for new and older vehicles. Both try to determine a vehicle's crash worthiness using multiple parameters. The frontal crash done by IIHS is more stringent (10mph faster and off-center), which explains the sometimes discrepant results between the two sites.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Cocco (the Combi Coccoro) and I go to the NY Auto Show

Cocco (the Combi Coccoro) rides the subway to the NY Auto Show
Oh my gosh... I am one exhausted car seat lady!  186 different vehicle models and 7 hours of schlepping a car seat + laptop + camera... but it was all worth it. Stay tuned for the highlights (and the strange but true) - along with a list of the 2010 vehicles that exceed the minimums for lower anchors and top tethers (very useful info for parents with 3 or more kids when purchasing a vehicle).

Answers to "Mistake Monday" 4/5/10

ANSWERS: (please see bottom of page for teaching points on LATCH)

  • The lower anchor belt & vehicle shoulder/lap belt are BOTH used
  • The lower anchor belt is used in the center seat - in a vehicle which only has the lower anchors for the two side seating positions in the back seat
  • The vehicle's shoulder/lap belt is routed UNDER (instead of over) the metal LATCH bar. 
 Image: Forward-facing Britax Boulevard with vehicle's shoulder/lap belt & top tether
  • When using a lap belt (no shoulder belt), the lap belt gets routed UNDER the LATCH bar on the Britax Marathon/Boulevard/Advocate.
  • The shoulder belt WAS properly routed through the built in locking clip - but it was not shown in this picture since the appropriate locking clip is on the opposite side of the seat.  For forward-facing, use ONLY the built in locking clip that is on the side opposite to where the vehicle's seat belt buckles in.  
  • There is no need for a metal locking clip with this installation because 1. the Britax Boulevard has a built in locking clip for forward-facing which must be used with a shoulder belt installation and 2. this vehicle is post-1996 and therefore has a way to keep the shoulder belt locked for the car seat (in this case a switchable retractor)
  • LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren. It's also known as ISOFIX in Europe and LUAS (Lower Universal Anchorage System) in Canada.
  • LATCH is a way to secure a child safety seat to the vehicle using straps from the child safety seat that connect to special metal anchors in the vehicle.
Vehicles since model year 2003 must have lower anchors in at least TWO positions and tether anchors in at least THREE positions. This means that in most vehicles, the side seats have lower anchors AND tether anchors, while the center seat has a tether anchor but NO lower anchors.  See below for info on the few vehicles that do have lower anchors for the center seat.

    •  LOWER ANCHORS: Lower anchors are a pair of metal “u-shaped” bars hidden in the vehicle’s seat cushion (where the part you sit on meets the part that your back rests on).
    • TETHER ANCHOR: A tether anchor is a metal ring found behind (or sometimes under) the vehicle seat.
This picture shows a typical back seat with the 2 pairs of lower anchors - one for each of the side seats.  The standard spacing between the lower anchors is 11 inches.  Note how the spacing between the inner most anchors is wider than 11 inches.  
***The middle in this picture - and in most vehicles - is NOT a position that has the lower anchors.

This diagram shows how variable the location for the top tether can be - always check the vehicle owners manual for details. 
    • LOWER ANCHOR STRAP: All child safety seats that use the vehicle’s lower anchors have a lower anchor strap with a hook on either end. Some child safety seats have two separate lower anchor straps, each with a hook on one end. These hooks connect to the vehicle’s lower anchors.
    • TETHER STRAP: All forward-facing child safety seats that use LATCH come with not only a lower anchor strap, but also a tether strap. The tether strap comes from the top of the car seat and has a hook on the end that lets it connect to the tether anchor in the vehicle. 
An Analogy - Lower Anchor Strap:Vehicle Seat Belt as Contacts:Glasses
Lower anchors are used INSTEAD of the vehicle's safety belt to secure the child safety seat to the vehicle.  Just like you wouldn't wear contacts and glasses on the same day - as you would see worse rather than better - so too you don't want to use the lower anchors AND the vehicle's seat belt to secure the car seat.  Choose one or the other, as appropriate for the seating position where you are installing the car seat.

Note: in the future there may be a child safety seat that allows for both the lower anchors and vehicle's seat belt to be used at the same time, but currently none allow for this or recommend it.

It's ALWAYS BETTER WITH A TETHER (Forward-facing that is)
Tethers are used IN ADDITION to the lower anchors OR the vehicle's safety belt to secure a forward-facing child safety seat to the vehicle.  Tethers keep a child's brain and spinal cord much safer by decreasing how far the head moves forward - typically by 4-8 inches - which can mean the difference between the child's head hitting something hard or not.

This picture shows a real crash test (using dummies) - where one seat was installed with a top tether and one without.  Notice how the dummy's head moves 6 inches farther forward when the top tether isn't used!

Which vehicles have lower anchors for the CENTER seat?
Stay tuned - I'm off to the NY Auto Show today and will update this portion soon. 

Most common LATCH mistakes:
  1. Child safety seat is installed too loosely
  2. Tether not used on a forward-facing car seat
  3. "Borrowing" the inner most lower anchors from the two side seats to secure a car seat in the center (as was shown in this week's mistake monday picture)
  4. The lower anchor strap is not routed through the correct path on the car seat - for example, the strap may be routed through the rear-facing belt path when the seat is forward-facing.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Monday's Mistake - can you spot the mistake/s in the picture?

This is a forward-facing Britax Boulevard installed in the center of a 2006 Honda Pilot (for those who are curious, the top tether is attached properly - it just isn't shown in the picture).

Stay tuned for some great teaching tips tomorrow on LATCH when I post the answers.