Q: I know that the number of children killed in automobile crashes has fallen in recent years, but any number is too high. As I am six months pregnant, I want to do all I can do to protect my baby girl in the car. What do you recommend?
A: It is wonderful that child passenger safety has progressed so rapidly since I was an unrestrained bouncy toddler in my parents’ old blue Plymouth. We traveled less in those days, but we were still at much higher risk. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the number of child deaths from motor vehicle crashes peaked in 1977 at 1405, or 31.7 deaths per million children under age 13. The number has fallen to 640 as of 2013 and the rate of death is now just 12.1 per million (there are 12,000,000 more U.S. children now then there were in 1977), an astounding 62 percent decrease over that period! But I agree with you that 640 is 640 too many deaths, so on to attempting to answer your question.
Driving safely is always a good start. Avoiding driving when impaired by substances (alcohol and marijuana and some prescription medicines, for example) or when impaired by distractions like fatigue, texting, talking on your cell phone, having to mete out discipline to rowdy kids is critically important. If you’re wondering which of your prescription drugs might cause poor judgment or sleepiness when driving, remember the excellent resources of the always-open New Mexico Poison Center (1-800-222-1222).
By the way, the same source, www.iihs.org, gives the stats for teenagers, as well – and they are also very encouraging, and also still worse than we would like: in 1977, there were 8,747 deaths among 13-19 year old teens; in 2013, that was down to 2,524. The teen rate peaked at 53.8 in 1979 and then began to fall, hitting 15.1 in 2013. Another cause for self-congratulation: that’s a wonderful 72 percent decrease in rate! Kids weren’t texting in the ’70s, but they were drinking, and using other substances, and driving, they were less often properly restrained in the cars and the graduated driver’s licenses that protect our youngest drivers (first a permit, then a limited license, then finally full licensure) had not yet been placed into effect.
Back to your baby: We can’t be completely sure how much of that decrease in early childhood passenger safety is due to use of car seats, though we do know that, these days, an unrestrained small child is 71 percent more likely, and a teenager 54 percent more likely, to die in a crash than one who is properly restrained. (It’s possible that drivers careless enough to leave their children unrestrained are also more careless drivers.) It’s pretty likely that the well-developed car seat industry has taken jobs away from the manufacturers of small caskets. I should mention that car seat position is also important as young children are at much higher risk in the front seat (an excellent booklet from the USAA Educational Foundation states that children under 13 should always be in the back seat. So, even if you’d like to smile across at your baby and tend to her needs (do that before buckling her in), don’t put that all-important car seat in the shotgun position. So, put her in the back seat, in a well-attached rear-facing car seat, every time from the time you take her home from the hospital and never leave her alone in the car, even for a second.
It is estimated that three-fourths of all infant car seats are used incorrectly. That includes using the wrong seat for age, turning the seat around too early (it’s safest for your baby to face backwards until at least age two), failing to fasten the seat into the car properly, failing to fasten all the snaps holding the child in the seat, and so forth.
Take a look at some of the excellent handouts from Safe Ride News at www.saferidenews.com. One talks about the efficacy of the LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system of attaching your child’s car seat both at the top and also with the seat belt, being certain that the top of the car seat won’t fall forward in a crash.
The New Mexico Department of Transportation’s Safer New Mexico Now offers a great deal of helpful information about child passenger safety at www.safernm.org. A brochure, “Keeping Children Safer on New Mexico Roads: Laws, Choices, Resources,” available by calling 800-231-6145, is especially helpful, summarizing suggestions for all ages from infant to teen and spelling out what New Mexico’s law says about what a parent must do.
Best of all for the purpose of assuring the safety of your baby would be to attend one of the sessions listed at www.safernm.org/fitting-stations-and-clinics.aspx. There are seven scheduled around the state between now and June 18, and many more to follow. The child passenger safety experts at these events can answer all of your questions and be sure your baby is as safe as she can possibly be.