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Secure children in car seat away from airbags

A two-vehicle car crash that claimed the life of a young Caldwell girl this week underscores the importance of properly restraining children seats appropriate for their size. It also affirms the warning that young children should not ride in the front seat of vehicles equipped with passenger-side airbags.

The child was thrown into the dashboard of a 1995 Ford Windstar and then hurled back when the airbag deployed, according to investigating state police officer Charles Ketchum.

The Idaho Press Tribune (Nampa) reported Wednesday that Donald E. Jones of Caldwell was northbound when his van and an eastbound vehicle driven by Sonia Guerrero, also of Caldwell, collided at an uncontrolled intersection. Ketchum estimates that both vehicles were traveling slower than 25 miles per hour.

Jones sustained a broken hand in the crash. He was not wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident. Guerrero received minor injuries and was treated at a hospital before being released. The victim's 6-year-old sister, who was wearing a seat belt in the back seat of the van, sustained no injuries.

Investigating officers reported that a child safety seat was placed in the van but the 3-year-old girl was not in it.

“I cannot help but believe it would have made all the difference,” Ketchum said.

By most standards, the incident was minor, with little damage to the vehicles. The life-threatening injuries, however, resulted from the rapid deployment of the airbag and the violent impact it created for the 3-year-old victim.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) explicitly warns against allowing young children riding in the front seat, and strongly recommends lap/shoulder belts in properly designed child seats.

“Most new cars have air bags for front-seat passengers. When used with lap/shoulder belts, air bags work very well to protect older children and adults who ride facing the front of the car,” NHTSA said.

“Air bags do not work with rear-facing child seats (those used with infants). Airbags could seriously injure or even kill an unbuckled child or adult who is sitting too close to the air bag or who is thrown toward the dash during emergency braking. In a crash, the air bag inflates very quickly. It could hit anything close to the dashboard with enough force to cause severe injuries or even death.”

The NHTSA report also suggests:

  • A rear-facing child seat sits very close to the dashboard, the seat could be struck with enough force to cause serious, or even fatal injuries to a baby. Even older children (who have outgrown child seats) are at risk from a deploying air bag, if not properly restrained with a lap/shoulder belt.
  • The rear seat is the safest place for children of any age to ride. An infant in a rear-facing child seat must ride in the back seat if your vehicle has a passenger side air bag (babies under 1 year and 20 pounds should always ride in a rear-facing seat).
  • Make sure that everyone in the front seat is properly buckled up and seated as far back from the air bags as is reasonably possible.
  • Make sure that all young children are properly secured in a child safety seat and older children by a lap/shoulder belt.
  • Know how to properly install your child seat in the vehicle. Read both the owner’s manual for the vehicle and the instructions for your child safety seat.

NHTSA offers four simple ways to increase safety for children riding in motor vehicles:

  1. REAR-FACING INFANT SEATS in the back seat from birth to at least 1 year old and less than 20 pounds.
  2. FORWARD-FACING TODDLER SEATS in the back seat from age 1 to about age 4, or 20 to 40 pounds.
  3. BOOSTER SEATS in the back seat from about age 4 to at least age 8, or taller than 4 feet 9 inches.
  4. SAFETY BELTS at age 8 or older, or taller than 4 feet 9 inches. All children 12 and younger, or less than 100 pounds, should ride in the back seat and never in front of an air bag.

Booster seats bridge the gap between child safety seats and seat belts for children who weigh between 40 and 80 pounds, explains Josephine O’Connor of the Idaho Office of Highway Safety (OHS).

“There’s a critical time when kids have outgrown safety seats but are still too small to use seat belts alone. They need the protection of booster seats.”

Most seat belts are designed to protect an average-sized male. Young children who use only seat belts risk serious injuries to the abdomen and spine and are four times more likely to suffer a serious head injury in a crash when compared to those secured in a booster seat, O’Connor said.

The OHS collaborates with health districts, hospitals, fire departments and law enforcement agencies throughout the state to stage child seat/booster clinics for motorists. Certified inspectors will check for age- and size-appropriate child seats and proper installation.

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