Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I are arguing about whether or not we need to put our 4-year old into a car seat on short trips. His daycare is only about 10 minutes from our house and I drop him off on my way to work. He’s a fighter and sometimes, by the time I finally get him into his seat, we could have already been at daycare. I just don’t get the point. So who’s right—me or my wife?
A: Let’s get the most important thing out of the way first: you’re wrong—hopefully you won’t be dead wrong. Worse still, you’re not alone. A new study done by Safe Kids Worldwide (safekids.org) and General Motors Foundation found that 21 percent of parents think it’s okay to skip car seats and booster seats for short drives. It isn’t. Car accidents are one of the top causes of childhood deaths.
The fact that you’re only driving a few miles doesn’t make it any safer—in fact, just the opposite. According to a study done by Progressive Insurance, nearly a quarter of car accidents (23%) happen within a mile of at least one of the driver’s home. Fifty-two percent happen within five miles, and 77 percent happen within 15. If you think about it, that makes sense: In the few blocks around your house, you know the streets, the driveways, the stop signs, the traffic patterns, etc. And because it’s all so familiar, you let down your guard a little and don’t pay as much attention as you would in unfamiliar surroundings.
The study’s researchers found some interesting—and head-scratching—trends. For example, parents with graduate degrees were twice as likely (20% vs. 10%) as those with only a high-school education to say it was okay to take short drives without having the kids buckle up. And those who made more than $100,000/year were more than twice as likely (34% vs. 15%) as those who earned less than $35,000 to skip the car seats.
The researchers weren’t sure what to make of this, but I have a theory. People who make more money (and who often have more education) tend to buy more expensive cars like Mercedes and Volvos—cars with higher-than-average safety ratings. Since they feel safe and protected in their vehicles, they don’t worry about getting into a crash—and they don’t feel the need to drive as carefully as they would in a less-safe car.
Here are some car seat safety tips to keep in mind.
- Don’t use a previously owed car seat unless you know its history. Be sure it hasn’t been recalled by the manufacturer or ever been in an accident.
- Car seats belong in the back. If the seat is in in the front and the airbag deploys, your child could be injured or killed. Try to put the seat in the middle of the back seat. That gives your child some extra space in case you get hit from the side.
- Be sure the car seat is right for your child and your vehicle. Not all cars can accommodate all seats and not all seats will work in all cars. In addition, most seats are good for a limited age- and weight range. If your child has outgrown the seat, get a new one.
- Get it installed properly. Start by following the manufacturer’s instructions. Then have a professional double-check your work. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (nhtsa.gov) has a feature where you can search for a local inspector by zip code.