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Driving safe with kids: The dos and don'ts of car seats

Many parents are making mistakes with their children's car seats and those errors could have devastating consequences, a new study suggests.
/ Source: TODAY

Many parents are making mistakes with their children’s car seats and those errors could have devastating consequences, a new study suggests.

Researchers found more than half of forward-facing car seats were not being properly tethered to anchors in the vehicle, which could result in the seat pitching forward in an accident or sudden stop.

Jennifer Puckett, who lives in Fort Mill, South Carolina, knows all too well the difference a properly installed car seat can make. Back in September of 2016, her ex and young son were involved in a horrific car accident. When she got to the scene, she saw the vehicle resting on its roof. “My heart was beating a million miles a minute,” Puckett, 43, recalls.

Within seconds, Puckett located her ex and her son, who had come through the accident with just a scratch. “The car was completely upside-down,” Puckett says. “His car seat saved his life.”

The outcome might not have been so happy if the seat had not been installed properly, experts say. “Many people don’t know the tether is there or how important it is in helping a child survive in a crash,” says Lorrie Walker, car seat safety technician and manager at Safe Kids Worldwide, a nonprofit organization that conducted the new study. A properly secured tether, “reduces the opportunity for injury, in particular, head injury.”

Improper installation of car seats isn’t the only mistake parents are making as they drive with youngsters, experts say. Many drive around with loose objects scattered around the cabin of the vehicle. “In a crash, these objects can fly around like the clothes in a dryer,” Walker says.

Another issue is that parents often aren’t aware when child safety laws change, says Akisha Price, a health educator at the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “For example, in Maryland they removed the weight requirement for booster seats and replaced it with a height requirement,” Price says. “So families that aren’t aware of this might still be allowing their heavier, but short, child to ride without a booster seat.”

Walker and others suggested some dos and don’ts.

What NOT to do:

  1. Don’t keep hard and/or heavy objects in the car cabin. “You don’t want cans of soup and lots of groceries in there. They should be under a net or in the trunk so they won’t fly around in a roll over,” Walker says.
  2. Don’t use popular mirrors designed to go with a rear-facing seat to show the baby’s face to the driver. “That’s a major no-no,” Walker says. “It diverts the driver’s eyes from the road. If you’re looking at the mirror and studying the baby’s face, you’re not looking at what’s in front of you on the road.”
  3. Don’t be in a rush to let your child sit in the front seat. “I’ve seen too many parents let young children sit in the front seat,” Price says. “That shouldn’t happen till they are old enough to start driving.”
  4. Don’t move children from a backward-facing seat to a forward-facing one before they are 2. “I see many parents turning their kids forward too soon,” Price says.
  5. Don’t have your kids wearing their heavy coats on in the car. Those winter coats can interfere with the fit of the car seat’s harness, Price says.
  6. Don’t talk on the phone while you’re driving with your kids, says Dr. Guohua Li, professor of epidemiology and anesthesiology and director of the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at the Columbia University Medical Center.
  7. Don’t drive at night or in bad weather if you don’t need to, Li says.

What you should be doing:

  • If you’re driving with a newborn and worried about how she is doing, just pull over and check, Walker suggests.
  • If you’re on a long drive with a toddler, allow time to make stops so your child can get out and run around a bit, Walker says.
  • When driving with kids, make sure you’re in the safest car you own, which is usually the newest one, Li suggests.
  • Plan ahead so you don’t end up speeding because you’re in a rush. “Always leave plenty of time to get where you’re going,” Li counsels.
  • When your kids are in the car, be a model driver. “Driver’s education starts the day your child turns forward in the car,” Walker says. “They’re watching you. They see if you’re getting angry and how you interact with others. They notice if you’re speeding.”

NBC's Erika Edwards contributed to this report.