Mother takes a stand on car seat safety

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Her friends sometimes treat her like an evangelist with no impulse control. It's probably because she can't keep quiet when she spies a child seat improperly installed, or ill-fitting, or wrong for a child's age or size.

But Brooke Edwards Greenbaum has to live with herself, too. Her friends sympathize, but they don't quite understand. She hopes they never have to.

Last year, Greenbaum was a passenger in a car that crashed and left four people dead, including her father. Two people survived that accident: Greenbaum and her 15-month-old daughter Lauren, who was strapped into a child seat.

The crash was so severe, she wonders what would have happened had Lauren not been tightly belted and the seat secured. As it was, the car seat separated from its base and was thrown to the car floor on impact, wedged behind the driver's seat.

"I've run into friends who are doing things with car seats that are so wrong, it's scary," says the 33-year-old stay-at-home mother, who lives in Brooklandville. "But they don't want to hear it. At some point, you have to shut up. It amazes me -- especially knowing me and knowing where I'm from."

According to federal researchers, more than 90 percent of young children travel in car seats. That's the highest compliance rate ever, and a tribute to a two-decades-long effort to save the lives of the nation's youngest crash victims.

But as parents have come to accept car seats, a new problem has emerged: The seats aren't being used correctly.

Most wrongly installed

A four-year campaign by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the nonprofit National Safe Kids Campaign has produced a stunning statistic. Of the thousands of car seats double-checked at voluntary "Check Up" inspections around the country, 85 percent are found to have been wrongly installed.

Car safety experts fear that improperly used car seats may result in death or more serious injury to a child involved in a car crash. In 1998, more than 700 children under the age of 5 died in car crashes on U.S. roads.

"No one in their right mind wants to hurt their child," says Barbara Beckett, state coordinator for the Maryland Safe Kids Coalition. "But it's been a challenge to make people aware of how they may be doing just that."

In Maryland, a driver can be stopped and issued a $48 citation for failing to secure in a safety seat any child passenger under the age of 4 or weighing less than 40 pounds. But the law levies no penalty for a child seat that's used incorrectly.

Child safety experts say it's not uncommon to find parents who think they've installed a child seat correctly but haven't. According to NHTSA officials, more than 60 different car seat models are introduced each year, and how they fit in the various makes and models of cars, trucks and vans can vary tremendously.

Among the most common mistakes: car seats that aren't installed tightly enough, loose child restraint straps and improperly positioned locking clips. Parents also tend to "graduate" their children too quickly: putting infants in front-facing seats instead of rear-facing infant seats before age 1, or putting 5-year-olds in adult seatbelts instead of boosters.

"The biggest risk to kids is not to use car seats -- that's like playing Russian roulette," says Karen DiCapua, director of child passenger safety for the National Safe Kids Campaign in Washington. "But some misuse can be a severe risk, too -- like positioning an infant seat in front of an air bag -- we just don't know how many kids are hurt by those mistakes."

That awful evening

Brooke Greenbaum's education in child seats came on the evening of May 21 last year. Her father, J. Howard "Hank" Edwards, was driving his wife's Pontiac Bonneville on Glen Arm Road near Glen Arm. Greenbaum and her daughter were in the back seat.

They had just dropped off a crib at a friend's house in Parkville and were returning to Edwards' home in Hydes when a car traveling in the opposite direction and driven by a Loch Raven High senior veered into their path.

Police believe the Nissan Maxima had been going more than 80 miles an hour when the teen swerved off the road, lost control and steered into Greenbaum's car. The driver and his passengers, two 16-year-old female schoolmates, died from injuries sustained in the crash.

After crawling out of the wreckage with her daughter, Greenbaum watched in horror as her father, who initially seemed only bruised in the crash, clutched his chest, fell to the ground and could not be revived. His aorta had been punctured. He had bled to death internally.

Aside from some abrasions, Lauren was unhurt. Her infant seat had done its job.

"I had done everything right," recalls Greenbaum.

In May, she enrolled in a four-day training course sponsored by LifeBridge Health to become a "child passenger safety technician," so she can teach others how to fit child seats properly. Since then, she's twice served as a volunteer at Baltimore area child seat checks. At her first in Timonium, she was approached by two pregnant women who had no idea how to deal with an infant seat. They said they'd selected the seats because the fabric was pretty. Greenbaum laughed. That's how she'd chosen her first car seat, too.

By September 2002, all new cars, minivans and light trucks will be equipped with the LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system that will allow child seats to be anchored more securely -- and uniformly. But safety advocates say it may be a decade or more before the federal mandate is fully in effect. The typical young family with children doesn't necessarily drive a new car, or even use a new child seat.

Until then, advocates say, it will be up to such people as Greenbaum to enlighten parents and show them how to use a child seat properly.

"This has been good for me, too," says Greenbaum who still has nagging back pains from the crash and anxieties about driving. "It's given me something to move forward with that's positive. I would love to someday make this a full-time job."

The National Safe Kids Campaign Web site is www.safekids. org.

How to protect your little travelers

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends these child seat practices:

Infants (birth-1 year): Up to 20 pounds, use an infant-only or rear-facing convertible seat. Larger infants should use a rear-facing seat that is marked for use up to 30 pounds. Never place an infant in the front seat of a vehicle with an air bag.

Toddlers (1-4 years): Over 20 pounds and up to 40 pounds, use a convertible or forward-facing seat. Harness straps should be at or above shoulder level. Children should never sit in the front seat of a vehicle with an air bag.

School-age children (4-8 years): Over 40 pounds and up to 80 pounds, use a belt-positioning booster seat. Make sure the seat uses both the lap and shoulder belt. The lap belt must fit low and tight across the hips and the shoulder belt must rest over the shoulder and across the chest.

Most common errors

These are the most common mistakes uncovered by inspectors at voluntary child safety seat checks:

* Safety belt not holding seat in tightly (63 percent).

* Harness straps not snug (33 percent).

* Harness straps not routed correctly (20 percent).

* Harness retainer clip not at armpit level (19 percent).

* Locking clip not used correctly (17 percent).

* Safety belt not in locked mode (11 percent).

* Car seat recalled and not repaired (9 percent).

Source: National Safe Kids Campaign

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