Mother Wired Magazine Cover

Unsafe Children's Car Seats

By William Heartstone, Syndicated Writer

Child in Carseat

LOS ANGELES DESK - When Michele Hutchinson strapped her three-year-old daughter, Dana, into her child safety seat one stormy afternoon last September, certain she was doing everything possible to keep her safe. Before she left to pick Dana up at school, Michele's husband, Bryan, had carefully installed the seating the front of the car and then double-checked to make sure it was tight enough, As Michele drove through the rain on a curving road near their home in Damascus, Md., she lost control of the car and collided head-on with a pickup truck. Dana's car seat pitched her forward so violently that her head struck the dashboard.

Two days later, in the hospital, Michele Hutchinson cradled Dana in her arms one last time before the little girl was removed from life support and died of critical head injuries.

Dana's death was devastating, but the Hutchinsons were further crushed to learn it could have been prevented. They found out too late that the seatbelt in their 1991 Mercury Cougar was not compatible with their daughter's child safety seat. But they also learned the belt could have been--if it had been modified with a supplemental buckle. Information about the buckle, provided and installed for free by the car manufacturer if requested, was buried in the technobabble of the car instruction manual.

"What happened to us is every parent's worst nightmare," says Bryan Hutchinson. "We weren't careless. We did everything we thought we were supposed to do. You shouldn't have to have an abnormally high level of intelligence to figure out how to put a seat in."

The Hutchinsons' tragedy is not an isolated one. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that more than 50 children are killed and thousands more injured each year as a result of improper installation of infant and child safety seats.

Ironically, while auto-restraint systems have become safer and more convenient for adults during the last ten years, child-restraint systems have become more complicated to install--and therefore potentially less safe. Automobile designers and engineers "were not paying attention to the fact that the changes they were making were detrimental to compatibility" with child safety seats, says Howard S. Willson, chairman of the Society of Automotive Engineers's child- restraint system task force. As a result, there are now seven major types of seatbelts, countless child- seat styles, and too little attention called to the fact that many seatbelt systems now require special modifications to ensure safety.

To help prevent their tragedy from being repeated, Michele and Bryan Hutchinson have established Drivers Appeal for National Awareness (DANA), a nonprofit foundation whose immediate goal is to publicize the current incompatible systems and encourage parents to make the necessary modifications in their cars. They are also lobbying for a simpler, standardized seatbelt system that would accommodate all safetyseats.

In the meantime, "something's got to be done to alert parents, says Annemarie Shelness, a Connecticut-based child auto safety expert who has been working for years to persuade auto manufacturers to state on their stickers whether their vehicle seat design or seatbelt is compatible with a particular child- restraint system. We know, when we're buying a car, the kind of motor it has and all about the add- ons and extras, Shelness says. Auto makers should say when a car may not be suitable for child seats. 'So far, they're not doing that.'

Several car manufacturers, including Chrysler, Ford, Volvo, and General Motors, have taken the guesswork out of installation by building integrated child seats into some of their newer vehicles. Unfortunately, consumers have been slow to buy this extra because it can cost at least a couple of hundred dollars and does not accommodate an infant weighing under 20 pounds. Also, children outgrow it in two or three years.

The most promising solution, say NHTSA officials, may be a standardized design called Isofix, in which a built-in fastener on the child seat would snap directly into a device anchored to the frame of the car. This system could be incorporated into all new cars and child seats making them as compatible as plugs. Unfortunately, Isofix is still in development, and it may be years before it will be available to the public. That means current cars and child restraints will remain in use for at least a decade.

Meanwhile, grass roots child safety advocates like the Hutchinsons are working hard to raise awareness of the problem of seatbelt and car safety seat incompatibility. "safety seats are there to protect our children as a form of immunization against a potentially fatal encounter," says Stephanie Tombrello, executive director of the Inglewood, Calif., advocacy group, SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A. "Most people don't realize it, but the tragedy of Dana Hutchinson is the tragedy of many. "

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