Car seats are everywhere. In the laundry room. In the den. In the shed. At her sister's house. They've taken over Debbie Baer's house, and they've taken over her life.
Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn't call the 47-year-old Pikesville nurse for advice on buying car seats or help in installing one. She often invites callers over so she can personally inspect their car seats.
Then there's her parking lot crusade. Wherever she goes, Mrs. Baer scouts for improperly installed child seats. The trunk of her white Lincoln Continental holds a file drawer of copies of articles on every possible problem with them. When she spots a wobbly seat, or a recalled one, she runs after parents to discuss it. Sometimes she leaves a note on the car's windshield, along with instructions on how to fix it, and her name and number for more information.
"People think if they put their kid in a car seat, that's enough," says Mrs. Baer, president of the Maryland Child Safety Passenger Association.
It turns out there's a lot more to it than that -- and the way cars are being designed is making it harder for parents to get it right.
"People who care still misuse their seats," Mrs. Baer says.
Her car seat campaign evolved from her 25 years of work as a labor and delivery nurse at Sinai Hospital, where she monitored high-risk expectant mothers from 1976 to 1984.
She got to thinking it was silly for nurses to spend so much time saving babies and then send them home in their parents' arms. When her second child was born in 1984 and she stopped working full-time, Mrs. Baer volunteered to hand out car seat safety information in supermarkets during National Transportation Safety Week.
L She now volunteers 40 to 50 hours a week to car seat issues.
"I try not to do it on Saturday, my Sabbath," she says. "But in the Jewish religion, the saving of a life takes precedence over everything else. I could save someone's life, so I will do it."
Mrs. Baer fields calls for SafetyBeltSafe USA, a California based non-profit group, about child seat safety. Her advice to dozens of callers each month ranges from whether a car seat is still usable to installation instructions so it won't rock from side to side.
Parent confusion and anxiety is running higher than usual these days because of a recent article in Consumer Reports that warns that one of the most popular car seats, the Century 590, failed the magazine's crash tests. The seat came right out of the base in a test crash at 30 mph with a 9-month-old-sized dummy, the magazine reported.
The manufacturer says it's safe -- the seat passed its own retests, and Mrs. Baer tells people they can continue using the seat with the base if they want. But she adds, "If it was my kid, I'd probably use it without the base."
Since she began giving advice on car seats in 1984, the problem of improperly installed car seats has gotten worse, not better, Mrs. Baer says. It is growing because cars are getting more difficult to use and because instruction manuals are poorly written.
She tells people to avoid two-door cars, cars with humps in the middle back seat, and new cars with seat belts positioned four or five inches forward of the crack where the back and bottom of the seat meet. Manufacturers are installing the belt here so it will rest on the top of an adult leg rather than on the abdomen. But it doesn't work with child car seats.
Spreading the word
As president for the past seven years of the Maryland Child Safety Passenger Association, Mrs. Baer retools old car seats and helps distributes thousands of donated new ones.
She teaches an eight-hour course on the history of car seats to nurses and paramedics and is trying to get more hospitals to hold car seat safety classes for obstetric nurses. She also has approached area car dealers to offer classes about car seats to sales reps. "Car dealer sales people don't know a blessed thing about car seats," she says. So far, two have agreed.
Mrs. Baer also runs car seat safety clinics in the parking lot of the Giant on Old Court Road.
"People either come willingly or I grab them," she says.
Stopping people to discuss their car seats is time-consuming and, to Mrs. Baer's 11-year-old daughter, Abigail, very embarrassing.
She and her 15-year-old sister, Alicia, "stand there and stand there," she says. It happens just about everytime they go out. "There's no day when she's not checking someone's car seat," Abigail says, rolling her eyes upward.
Tracy Lavin met Mrs. Baer in the Giant parking lot a couple of months ago.
"She has the missionary zeal of someone who is very serious," says Mrs. Lavin, an attorney who is getting ready to deliver her third child.
"I am loath to talk to strangers, male or female," she says. "I had my 2-year-old with me at the time. [Mrs. Baer] came up to me, and I did something very out of character. I opened my car door [and] I said, 'Please, check it out.' "
Then, Mrs. Lavin says, "She gave me her phone number and copious amounts of reading material. All this while bags of frozen food were sitting in the trunk."
Two months later, the pair spend more than an hour in the hot sun arranging the child seats for all three of Mrs. Lavin's children PTC in her silver Toyota Camry station wagon.
Before they start, Mrs. Baer checks the serial number of an older Century infant seat Mrs. Lavin wants to use against a list of recalled seats. And she checks its age. Manufacturers say seats shouldn't be used after 10 years, since the metal can rust and the plastic weakens from exposure to hot and cold weather.
Mrs. Baer also asks whether the seat has been in a crash. "Car seats are disposable," she says, "throw them out after they have been used for their purpose -- protecting a child in a crash."
Next she carefully examines the seat for cracks in the plastic. The pad is ripping, but it can be covered. The pads are made with a special foam to protect the baby.
"The mistake parents often make is using a washable cloth cover and not the foam pad," she says. "It's not safe." New pads are available direct from the manufacturer, usually at $5 to $10.
Mrs. Baer also checks the back of the seat to see that the harness is secure -- "this is not threaded properly," she tells Mrs. Lavin. "Other than that, the seat's in great shape."
Mrs. Lavin has lost the instructions on how to secure the harness. No problem. Mrs. Baer opens the trunk of her car and pulls out a 3-inch-thick blue binder -- a complete set of child safety seat manufacturers' instructions published by the U.S. Transportation Department. They look them up.
Mrs. Baer shows Mrs. Lavin how to thread the harness and secure them in clips in the back so that they don't pop out on impact. (Newer seats have poles to secure the harness.)
On to the next seat. With a screwdriver from her trunk, Mrs. Baer converts a small shield booster seat to a belt position booster, essentially a seat that gives 5 1/2 -year-old Scott a better view and a properly positioned shoulder belt. Without it, the shoulder belt ran into his neck, threatening to do serious damage in an accident. Scott winces, but it works.
The seat for Mrs. Lavin's 2-year-old, Douglas, should give no more than one-half to three-quarters of an inch. To install it, Mrs. Baer jumps on the car seat and sinks both knees into it, pushing hard as she fastens the belt to attach it.
Her installations, achieved with pressure from her tiny 5-foot frame, are so secure that some mothers never take the seats out again, not for car pools, not for anything.
One of her tricks: twist the seat buckle once or twice, shortening it, before snapping the belt into it.
"The whole idea of any restraint is to make you part of the vehicle," Mrs. Baer says, "because when you become part of the vehicle and are held in securely, it helps you withstand forces of a crash."
Another tip, this one for infant seats in the front: start with the passenger seat in the widest leg-room position, install the infant seat and, when you are done, move the passenger seat back to the narrowest position. The infant seat also has to be parallel with the ground -- which usually means stuffing the bottom of reclining auto seats with thick towels before you install it.
"Do I need a clip for this?" Mrs. Lavin asks.
Mrs. Baer refers her to the car's manual to find out. Whether to use locking clips depends on the automobile seat belt -- not on which child car seat you purchase. Usually they are for cars whose seat belts only lock on impact. They come with car seats, but also can be ordered from companies like Century and Evenflo for about $10.
Without a locking clip, belts loosen and the infant seat goes from side to side or moves forward -- both of which are unsafe. Mrs. Baer carries a box of clips in her trunk.
The sun glistens as the women work -- it's hard to fit three children in the back, but Mrs. Lavin isn't comfortable putting a new baby in the front seat. (Mrs. Baer says this position is fine, as long as an infant under 20 pounds faces the rear.)
"I never knew it was so complicated," sighs Mrs. Lavin.
Mrs. Baer agrees it's hard. "Government agencies aren't acknowledging how hard it is," she says. When it comes to installing child seats, she says, "if it's easy, it's not right."
If you can't get it right, call Mrs. Baer at 653-1979. If that's busy, try Kids In Safe Seats (KISS), an agency of the Maryland Department of Transportation, 225-1376. Outside Baltimore, call (800) 370-SEAT.