Buckling up baby, particularly when winter clothing gives him or her the contours of the Michelin tire man, may resemble a wrestling match with an octopus in down clothing. But it's worth the struggle, experts say.
"Child restraint systems are 71 percent effective in reducing death for infants, 54 percent effective for toddlers, and reduce the need for hospitalization by 69 percent," said Colleen McNulty, public health nurse at the Juneau Public Health Center and a safety seat expert.
Public health officials will push proper child-seat use for younger children during Child Passenger Safety Week, Feb. 11 to 17. But they also will urge parents to consider booster seats for older children.
David Thomson, health program manager with the state Division of Public Health, said there is a gray area in car-seat safety for children 4 to 8 years old.
"Roughly from age 4 to 8, a child is at risk as he is caught between the safety provided by car seats and the safety of the car's seat belt system," he said.
State law requires drivers to buckle children into child safety seats until they are 40 pounds or around age 4, Thomson said. But most standard seat belts are designed for people who weigh much more than 40 pounds.
"A gap exists between the requirements of the law and the engineering capabilities of current cars," he said. "Most 5-year-olds hop into the car and put the lap belt on, but place the shoulder harness behind their heads because it crosses over their face."
One option would be to change the law to require children to ride in a car seat or booster seat until they are closer to age 8 or 9 and 80 pounds, he said today.
Seat belts have been around for about 40 years, but Alaskans still have not gotten into the habit of using them, according to research by the Alaska Highway Safety Planning Agency. A November crash on Eaglecrest Road killed a local teen-ager who was not buckled in.
Child safety seats have been around about 25 years. Their design is continually improved, and their use has been progressively fine-tuned, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. When child safety seats are inspected at Juneau's annual Safe Kids buckle-up events, however, 85 percent of them are misused, said McNulty, a certified child passenger safety inspector.
"Only 52 percent of American kids are in car seats at all nationally," McNulty said. "So Alaska has high rates of non-use, high rates of motor vehicle accidents. Put the two together, although the numbers are small, the statistics are every bit as high as national."
The most common misuses are:
* Safety belt not anchoring seat 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).
The car seat must be so securely anchored into the vehicle that "you can't move it more than one inch side to side," McNulty said. "The harness straps should be so tight that you can't fit more than one finger at the breast bone."
McNulty believes any good habit practiced 30 days in a row sticks for life.
"Kids get used to (the tight straps) if they are strapped in tightly from the day they come home from the hospital," she said.
For a free car seat checkup, call the Public Health Center at 465-3353. For more information, call the traffic safety administration's auto safety hotline at (800) 424-9393 or check for the Web link at juneauempire.com.
Ann Chandonnet can be reached at email@example.com.