When I was a kid, my brothers and I used to ride unfettered in the "way back" of the family station wagon. We rarely used seatbelts back in the '70s, let alone cushy car seats with five-point harnesses and cup holders.
We've come a long way since then, thank goodness, and today's parents are quick to make sure that their kids are strapped in before they even start the car.
But the best car seats out there still aren't secure if aren't being used properly and, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 75 percent of car seats being used today are installed incorrectly. To help answer questions and demonstrate proper installation techniques, AAA and the Dorel Juvenile Group are hosting a car seat safety check in the Target parking lot at the South Bay Plaza in Dorchester (7 Allstate Road) from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Friday, July 23 (yes, that's tomorrow). If you can't make it to the event, you can still benefit from some of the tips Kimberlee Mitchell, National Child Safety Expert and Child Passenger Safety Technician, gave me to share with you.
A recent survey from Dorel Juvenile Group -- a major car seat manufacturer -- and AAA found that the majority of parents surveyed don't know up to what age their child should ride in a car seat or booster seat (they're required in Massachusetts until your child is 8 years old and at least 4 feet 9 inches tall), the best place to install them (always in the back seat, and rear-facing car seats should be placed in the center), or what type of car seat or booster is safest for their child.
According to Mitchell, there are three things to make sure of no matter the age of your child or the type of car seat you have:
1. Make sure it fits your child per manufacturer's specifications.
2. Make sure it first in your car's back seat. Read the car seat manual as well as your car's owner's manual (two-door compact cars don't have much room back there).
3. Make sure you can install it correctly in the safest location in your car every time. Even if you've got a carful of groceries or baggage, your car seat needs to fit properly in its usual spot.
For babies, choose an infant car seat with the highest weight, height, and age maximum for rear- facing. Some go up to 35 pounds, which is ideal -- children are 75 percent safer in a crash when they are rear-facing, so you will want to keep your child rear-facing for as long as possible.
For children who have outgrown infant car seats, choose a "convertible" car seat with the highest weight, height and age maximum for rear-facing. As with infants, older children are 75 percent safer in a crash when they are rear-facing. Turn the seat to face forward only after your child reaches the maximum height or weight for rear-facing.
For children younger than 8 and shorter than 57 inches, choose a high back belt-positioning booster with that highest weight, height and age maximum.
In all cases, you should try out the car seat before you buy it. Most retailers will allow you to take the child restraint out of the box to see if it fits your child. Also ask if they will allow you to bring the child restraint to your car to make sure itís a proper fit. Youíd be surprised how many seats donít fit! Try it before you buy it and you will save yourself some frustration and wasted time.
Mitchell suggests having the pros check your work; there any many variables that people miss all the time, such as how having car seats in the wrong spot can pose a safety hazard to other children in the car. The National Traffic Highway Safety Administration can help you find an inspection station in your area; for more car seat safety tips, visit Safety 1st.
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @WriteEditRepeat.