On the eve of holiday shopping, the Consumer Product Safety Commission kicked off its fourth annual holiday toy safety campaign yesterday by issuing an age-old warning to parents: You better watch out.

Most toy-related child injuries and deaths are not caused by dangerous toys, but rather by toys that aren't used safely by consumers, the commission said.

"The most common type of accident occurred not because there was anything wrong with the toy, but because the toy was not being used safely," said Chairman Nancy Harvey Steorts.

Although injuries from toys have been on the decline -- an indication that toys generally are safer now than in the past -- thousands of accidents still occur every year, the commission said.

Sixteen children died and 118,000 others were injured in toy-related accidents in 1983, compared with 17 deaths and 123,000 injuries the previous year. Steorts said the downward trend is "encouraging" but the number is "still too high."

Half of the 16 reported toy-related deaths during 1983 resulted from children choking or swallowing small toys, parts of toys or balloons. Balloons have been the cause in the deaths of more than 80 small children -- most under 6 years old -- over the last 10 years. Five children died in 1983 by choking or suffocating on uninflated balloons or small pieces of burst balloons, and two have died so far this year.

The CPSC, in conjunction with toy manufacturers, recalled 39 unsafe toys this year. One such toy was the Smurf Wind-Up Musical Crib Train by Durham Industries Inc., recalled after one consumer reported that her infant had choked on a small part from the train.

Another toy that the commission found unsafe was the Splash & Stack Bluebird made by Fisher-Price Toys. The head of the toy could become stuck by suction over the nose and mouths of children, possibly causing suffocation. The toy has been redesigned so that the head no longer fits snugly over children's faces, the commission said.

Other potentially dangerous toys include some rattles and squeeze toys that could become lodged in an infant's throat. Those toys have been the cause of 106 choking incidents, including 18 deaths, since 1973, the agency said.

"A good rule of thumb with squeeze toys is that if they are smaller than a child's fist, then they are too small and could cause choking," Commissioner Terrence M. Scanlon said.

Crib gyms, intended as grasping exercisers for small infants, can be dangerous if kept in the crib after the child is five months old or begins to push up on hands and knees. A child's feet, hands or clothing could get entangled in the dangling crib gym.

Toy chests have been linked since 1973 to 21 deaths and two cases of permanent brain damage. Lids on some toy chests could fall, entrapping a child's head or putting pressure on the neck. Toy chests should be equipped with a heavy-duty lid support, the commission said.

Steorts advised parents to read the labels on toys when shopping to make sure they are right for the child's age.

The commission also advised shoppers to avoid toys with small parts or long strings or cords that may cause strangulation. Toys with sharp edges, sharp points or propelled parts also should be avoided, the CPSC said.