Getting Help With Car Seats

Sometimes, even parents who have their children's best interests at heart still don't get it right. Take child safety seats, for example; about 80 to 85 percent of these car seats continue to be used incorrectly in some way.

The most common forms of misuse for rearward- and forward-facing child safety seats are that safety belts are not holding seats in tightly, the harness straps are not snug and the harness straps are not routed correctly.

Where can parents turn for help if they are concerned that their car safety seats aren't fitting correctly? That's what I set out to learn over the period of a few days recently. I was referred to many agencies and spoke to many people who were trying to be helpful. One problem is that getting the information can be confusing and frustrating when faced with trying to work through Web sites and telephone menus.

My experiences indicated that the type of resource that would be most helpful to parents has been fragmented and sporadic. That means having a place to go where trained personnel inspect car safety seats to be sure they are correctly installed and working correctly. Various automakers and groups hold such events, but they are often one-time events that move from place to place, making it difficult for parents to find them.

That, however, seems to be changing, thanks in part to a call about a year ago by the National Transportation Safety Board's chairman, Jim Hall, for automakers and others to create a national system of permanent child safety seat fitting stations.

DaimlerChrysler is the first automaker to announce the creation of these permanent stations. At these sites parents will learn how to correctly install the seats, the seats will be inspected for recalls and for damage.

DaimlerChrysler has just announced it is opening its free, permanent child safety seat inspection service, Fit for a Kid, at almost 400 participating Five-Star DaimlerChrysler dealerships in 80 markets throughout the country. It will be available in 1,000 Five-Star dealerships by the end of the year. Dealerships are awarded five stars for achieving service excellence. The service is available to all families, no matter what make or model vehicle they drive. DaimlerChrysler is working with Fisher-Price and the National Safety Council. Fisher Price is offering discounts on certain convertible car seats and booster seats to parents who discover during the inspection that their current seat is not safe.

To find dealership sites and to learn about new sites as they join the program, call toll free 1-877-FIT-4-A-KID or go to the Web site, http://www.seatcheck.org/. Appointments can be scheduled by calling that number, visiting the Web site, or calling a dealer directly. Inspection takes 20 to 30 minutes.

SAFE KIDS and safety checks

Another organization to which parents can turn is the National SAFE KIDS Campaign, headquartered in Washington, D.C. SAFE KIDS has been partnered with General Motors since 1996 in a program that conducts child safety seat checks at GM dealerships at various locations throughout the year. These are not permanent sites, however. Parents do not have to own a GM vehicle to attend the child car safety seat checks and there is no charge for the checks.

In an attempt to reach more parents, GM has donated a fleet of 51 Chevrolet Venture minivans, one in each state and one in the District of Columbia, to SAFE KIDS to supplement the seat check efforts at its dealerships by taking the vans into different community settings such as day care centers and shopping malls. SAFE KIDS coalitions

in each state are creating a roll-out plan and will announce plans during Child Passenger Safety Week (February 13-19).

To find out whether a dealership near you is hosting a safety seat check, or if the van is coming to a community location near you, you can either call SAFE KIDS at 202/662-0600 or check its Web site, www.safekids.org, which has a wealth of safety information available.

GM also has a 32-page booklet, "Precious Cargo: Protecting the Children Who Ride With You" in both English and Spanish. For a free copy, call 1-800-247-9168

State and federal government organizations may be helpful. In your state check with the Department of Public Safety or highway patrol to see if they know of safety seat inspection sites.

The federal government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been training child safety seat technicians for the past two years in a 36-hour course. There are now more than 4,600 certified child passenger safety technicians across the country who can help parents fit child safety seats correctly and make sure their children fit correctly in them.

How can parents find these people? One way is to visit the NHTSA web site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov, which lists contacts for each state. Or you can call NHTSA at 800/424-9393 or 888/327-4236 and ask for either your state's child passenger safety coordinator or a child passenger safety technician or where to find a safety seat check. Dial "0" to talk to a real person at NHTSA if you can't figure out the menu. Be prepared to leave a message with all pertinent details such as where you live and what kind of problem you are having. It helps to give them the make, model and year of the car you are driving and the manufacturer of your child's car seat.

NHTSA's Web site is another great way to learn about keeping your children safe while riding in the family vehicle.

You can also call the customer service number of the manufacturer of your child's car seat for information about fitting your seat, but the customer service representative may refer you to one of these resources, since several people made the point that it's very difficult to try to walk someone through the process over the phone. The better way is to have someone look at it in person – an option that GM and DaimlerChrysler are now bringing home to more families.

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