As a pediatrician, car seat safety is a routine part of a conversation with families. And as a pediatrician with a particular interest in teen driving safety, it's become routine to discuss ready-to-drive issues with my adolescent patients. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) new campaign for tween passenger safety called "Never Give Up Until They Buckle Up" reminds us all that we need to continue to reinforce to parents that their tween children (ages 8-14) have to properly wear their seat belt for every trip, every time, and that parents as role models wield the most important influence on their child's seat belt safety. A sobering statistic? NHTSA reports that over the past 5 years, almost half of the 1500+ kids 8-14 years old who died in car, SUV and van crashes were unbelted.
As my colleague Flaura Winston recently suggested, a change in routine or a distraction may play a part in why parents or tweens themselves do not buckle up in the vehicle - maybe it's riding in a taxi for the first time, or getting into a car with friends. I tell my families in the office that as parents we need to tell our kids, starting from as soon as they can understand, that we need to buckle our seat belt every time we get into a car. I've tried doing this with my own preschooler, and now he reminds me to "put on my belt seat!" before I even have the chance to do so. The goal is to make buckling up automatic, or second nature. A reminder song or phrase ("Buckle up or the car won't start") can be helpful to cue all passengers.
Finally, we also need to remind parents that seat belts weren't specifically designed to fit kids, and will only fit properly when children reach 4'9" tall (which typically is between the ages of 8 and 12). AAA recommends the following "Five Point Test" to help parents assess if their kids are ready for lap/shoulder belts:
1. Does your child sit all the way back against the seat?
2. Do your child's knees bend comfortably at the edge of the seat without slouching?
3. Does the belt cross the shoulder between the neck and arm?
4. Is the lap belt as low as possible, touching the thighs?
5. Can your child stay seated like this for the whole trip?
If the answer to any of these questions is "no", then your child may not be ready to transition from a booster seat to a lap/shoulder belt.
For more about NHTSA's tween safety campaign, visit www.safercar.gov/kidsbuckleup (www.safercar.gov/chicosabrochense for Spanish).