Ask an expert: Child safety seats: What every parent must know

Neil Bartlett

child safety seatsAs every parent knows, keeping your child safe in your car is a top priority.

Child car seat safety is a huge concern in the U.S. In 2011, more than 650 children age 12 and younger died in motor vehicle crashes, and an additional 148,000 were injured, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Experts believe that if parents correctly install and use child safety seats, many deaths and injuries could be prevented. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 3 out of 4 child car seats aren't used correctly.

We spoke to Amy Heinzen, program manager with the National Safety Council. She's a past chairwoman of the National Child Passenger Safety Board and is an expert in all aspects of child safety seats. We asked her how you can buy, install and maintain the safest seat.

What should new parents know about child safety seats?

Meet with a nationally certified child passenger safety technician (CPST) - there are over 36,000 of them in the U.S. Typically, you can contact them through police departments, fire departments, public health agencies and hospitals. It's best to do it by the time you're seven months pregnant, because (the technicians) aren't always available at the last minute.

Meeting with them will increase your confidence in your ability to properly seat your baby or youngster.

The CPST's role is to educate and equip new parents to find a child safety seat that provides maximum safety. Typically there's no charge. They can demonstrate installing the seat and (talk) about the fit.

Finding the right seat is like putting a puzzle together. There are three pieces: your vehicle, the car seat, and your child's height and weight. Be sure and read your car owner's manual and the instructions that come with the car seat.

How will I know if the seat I'm using is recalled? What do I do then?

NHTSA's site explains what to do. If there's a recall, check the date and model numbers on your car seat for a match.

When you buy your car seat, you'll get a registration card. Be sure to fill it out and send it in right away. If you don't, the manufacturer has no way of knowing you bought its car seat.

Is there one question that CPSTs like you hear the most?

I get a lot of questions about whether it's better to use a seat belt or the LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system which better secures the seat to the vehicle.

I tell parents the manufacturer's instructions often state NOT to use both. Typically the child won't be any safer if you use both. As long as they're being used correctly, each is equally safe.

Do car insurers provide coverage for child car seats?

If you're in a crash, some insurance companies will replace the car seat at no charge. It depends on the company and your policy. Check with your agent. Some insurance companies offer to help pay for a car seat at reduced cost. It doesn't hurt to ask.

If you're in a crash and you didn't follow instructions in the owner's vehicle manual and the instructions that came with the car seat, it will affect your liability. That's usually investigated.

What's one factor parents overlook when shopping for car seats?

It's never a good idea to buy a car seat at a garage sale or thrift shop. You have no way of knowing how safe it is. A car seat could have been in a crash and weakened and you can't always tell by looking at it. In fact, if a seat has been in any type of crash, you should replace it.

When you buy a new car seat, you don't have to shell out several hundred dollars. No matter the price, all car seats must meet the same federal safety standards.

How important is it for the rest of the family to practice safety habits like wearing seat belts and safety harnesses?

It's extremely important. In a crash, there isn't one crash but three -- what the vehicle hits, the bodies inside the vehicle striking the vehicle, and what happens in the body against each person's skeletal system.

If someone's not belted, it can lead to unnecessary serious injury and even death for them and others in the car. Lots of people think they'll never get in a car crash. But if you do, the laws of physics will win. Do what you can -- that means everyone should be belted every time you're in the car.

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