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Transcript: Thursday, February 24, 2005, 11 a.m. ET

Child Passenger Safety

Phil Gulak
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Thursday, February 24, 2005; 11:00 AM

Phil Gulak oversees child passenger safety programs for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and has worked for NHTSA for 20 years.

One of NHTSA's responsibilities is to increase the use of child safety seats. Working closely with other safety organizations, the agency has accomplished much. A recent study showed 99 percent restraint use for infants and 94 percent for toddlers. There are now child passenger safety seat laws in all U.S. states, plus D.C. and Puerto Rico. However, there are still challenges and too many safety seats are still misused. Too many kids are still sitting in the front seat (children 12 and under are safest when properly buckled in the back seat). And many older children are progressing prematurely to safety belts when they should be in booster seats.

Phil Gulak

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NHTSA develops materials in English and Spanish to help parents and caregivers understand child passenger safety issues. The agency also creates training classes, videos, and posters.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Phil Gulak: Good morning. I am very happy to be here on this snowy Washington, D.C. day. I am excited having an opportunity to answer your questions about child safety seats.

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Crosspointe, Va.: What are some of the different ways your office keeps the public informed about seat belt safety? How can parents access the most current data?

Phil Gulak: We do lots of different things to keep the public informed. For example, we have a great website, www.nhtsa.gov, which highlights all of the latest information on both child safety seats and seat belts.

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Centreville, Va.: My son is well above the required height/weight minimums for turning his car seat around to face the front. But he is still only 10 1/2 months old, not 1 year as also required. My husband and I have been considering turning the seat around before he is a year old, if only because his feet already butt up against the seat and he is unable to sit without having to bend his legs. Is the one-year minimum an absolute requirement, or is it merely a recommendation in this type of situation? I don't want to put him in danger, but I don't want him to be cramped up in the seat either.

Phil Gulak: NHTSA recommends that children stay rear facing up to one year of age. Beyond that, we recommend that you consult the maker of your child safety seat for more specific guidelines.

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Virginia: My son is really tired of being in his baby seat. Is it really that big of a deal that he rides in a booster seat, now that he's five?

Phil Gulak: Yes it is a big deal for safety! According to researchers at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, the use of belt-positioning booster seats lowers the risk of injury to children by nearly 60 percent compared with the use of safety belts alone.

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Ft. Washington, Md.: My neighbor told me that my car seat was recalled. Now I'm afraid to use it. If she hadn't told me about it, I'd still be using it and I could have hurt my daughter.

Phil Gulak: All new car seats come with a registration form that you should definitely fill out and return to the manufacturer. If you've lost your form, you can go to the NHTSA website at www.nhtsa.gov and download a copy. This form is used in case the manufacturer needs to send you a notice of a recall. Keep in mind that not all recalls are due to a safety problem. Sometimes a mistake in labeling can prompt a recall. Be sure to get the information and follow the guidance provided by the manufacturer. You may want to periodically check the web at www.odi.nhtsa.gov/cars/problems/recalls/childseat.cfm for information on recalls or call NHTSA's Auto Safety Hotline at 888-327-4236.

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Montclair, N.J.: Regarding child safety in the backseat, are side-curtain type airbags recommended when babies/children are in car seats? We are in the market for a new car and are trying to determine if we should only consider vehicles with this feature. Thank you!

Phil Gulak: Side-curtain air bags have some safety benefit for adult passengers. However, the benefits for children in safety seats are minimal. You may want to go to NHTSA's website, www.safercar.gov, for more detailed information.

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Burke, Va.: Hello Mr. Gulak -- What are some new safety features cars will be using in the next few years?

Phil Gulak: Check out NHTSA's website www.safercar.gov for the latest information on new safety features.

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Washington, D.C.: Are all approved safety seats roughly equal or does DOT rank seats according to how safe they are? Is so, what's our best bet?

Phil Gulak: All seats that meet government standards will protect your child when installed correctly. For your information we also rate child safety seats on ease of use. To review our ratings go to www.safercar.gov.

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Bethesda, Maryland: How do we get kids in the habit of automatically putting on a seatbelt? As kids become young adult drivers, how do you instill seatbelt use as a reflex?

Phil Gulak: Start them early. That means from their first ride home from the hospital. We have found that when parents set a good example, the kids form a habit for life.

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D.C.: My daughter is 8 months old and already weighs 20 pounds. Can I turn her child safety seat forward facing?

Phil Gulak: Not yet! Keeping babies rear facing for as long as possible provides maximum safety benefits. Be sure to check with your child seat instruction booklet for weight and height limits. NHTSA, along with other safety organizations and the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommend that infants ride rear facing until they are at least one year old and at least 20 pounds.

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Washington, D.C.: Why is it so difficult to install a child safety seat properly?

Phil Gulak: There are hundreds of child safety seats on the market and hundreds of different vehicle models, resulting in thousands of possible configurations for installations. The problem you are referring to is exactly why NHTSA now requires a new installation system that doesn't require the use of the vehicle's belt system to install child safety seat. This new requirement went into effect beginning with the 2002 model cars.

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Arlington, Va.: What is your position on putting a child's safety seat in the middle or outside of the back seat? It seems like the middle would be safer in a side impact accident, but I had heard that the recommendation is to put the seat on the outside. If this is so, why is that?

Phil Gulak: The safest position for all passengers is the rear seat. If your vehicle has a rear middle seat position where you can correctly install the child safety seat that would be the safest place. But, if not, a correctly installed child safety seat on either side will still provide protection for your child.

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Fairfax, Va.: What's the minimum age a baby can safely start riding in a car seat?

Phil Gulak: If you mean a child safety seat...from the first day home from the hospital and every time they ride in the car.

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Silver Spring, Md.: What's the weight and or height requirement regarding booster seats in Maryland? Also, do you have any info on side impact airbags and children? Is the force when they open less?

Phil Gulak: As of October 1, 2003, Maryland required that children need to be in a booster seat up to at least age six.

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Annandale, Va.: My husband thinks that once kids are eight there is no safety advantage to having them sit in booster seats. Is that correct, or are there height or weight measures we should be considering instead?

Phil Gulak: After children exceed the limitations of their child safety seat, (usually around age 4), they should move into a booster seat until they are at least 8 years old, unless they are 4'9" tall.
Safety belts are for older children. They must be worn correctly at all times. The lap portion should be worn snugly on the upper thigh and the shoulder portion should lie comfortably across the chest. Never allow children to put the shoulder portion under the arm or behind the back.

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Washington, D.C.: My daughter is extremely tall for her age - she just turned 3 and is 41 inches tall. Most car seats only accommodate children up to 40 inches, but I feel she is too young to be in a booster seat. What is the recommended age for a child to switch from a car seat to a booster?

Phil Gulak: After children exceed the limitations of their child safety seat, (usually around age 4), they should move into a booster seat until they are at least 8 years old, unless they are 4'9" tall.

First, I would recommend that you check the child seat manufacturer's instructions for their height and weight limitations. Also, there are new child safety seats on the market that accommodate children up to 100 pounds using an internal harness.

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Baltimore, Md.: Hi Phil,
As a certified Passenger Safety Technician, I'd like to remind your chatters that there are tons of resources out there for parents seeking personalized help when installing their child safety seats. Check out mdkiss.org or safekids.org. Both organizations hold regular seat checks in the Baltimore/D.C. area.

Phil Gulak: Thanks for providing the information.

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Fairfax, Va.: A friend swears that it's unsafe to use a mirror attached to the rear headrest to see my baby. Do you agree?

Phil Gulak: I would not recommend placing a mirror on the rear seat. In the event of a crash, the mirror can dislodge and become a flying object. If your baby is correctly placed in a properly installed car seat, he/she will be fine. If you're still worried, however, you could make periodic stops and check on him/her.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Hi Phil! I know people say the back seat is the safest place for a baby. But I have a newborn and I'm the only adult in the car, so I prefer to have him in the front seat so I can watch him. My car is old so I don't have airbags. So is using the front seat okay in my case?

Phil Gulak: Not really. Babies, in fact all children (and adults too) are safest when seated in the rear seat. If your baby is correctly placed in a properly installed car seat, he'll be fine. If you are still worried, you could make periodic stops and check on him.

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Smithville, Ohio: I know the newer cars have high-tech air bags, so does that mean it's fine to put kids in the front?

Phil Gulak: No, even with the advances in frontal air bags, infants in rear-facing seats should never be positioned in front of an airbag. In fact, the best thing parents can do to ensure the safety of their children at any age is to have them safely secured at all times in the back seat.

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Oxon Hill, Maryland: I was in a fender bender accident last week and fortunately both my daughter and I are fine. However, my husband insists that I throw out the child safety seat, which we just bought three weeks ago. He said he heard you couldn’t use a child seat that's been in an accident. The seat looks fine. But I never want to take chances with my child's safety. What should I do?

Phil Gulak: Current research shows that child safety seats are very strong and will continue to provide high levels of protection for your child even after being involved in a minor crash. However, note that I use the word MINOR. NHTSA has established several criteria to help parents determine what is meant by a minor crash. For a crash to be considered minor, all of the following must apply: a) detailed visual inspection of the seat doesn't reveal any cracks or warps that might have been caused by the crash; b) the vehicle in which the car seat was installed was capable of being driven away from the scene of the crash; c) the vehicle door nearest the child safety seat was not damaged; d) there were no injuries to any of the vehicle's occupants; and e) the airbags (if any) didn't deploy in the crash. If you are still unsure, contact your auto insurance company about its policy on replacement of seats. NHTSA also recommends that parents and caregivers check with the child seat manufacturer regarding the performance of the seat.

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Phil Gulak: Wow! The time went by so fast. Thank you all for the great questions. Remember, if you have additional questions about child safety seats and booster seats, please check out the NHTSA website at www.safercar.gov

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