The parents simply did it wrong.

That much was made clear this summer during checks of child safety seats at Fitzgerald Auto Mall in Rockville.

In July, for example, Fitzgerald checked parent and guardian installations of 326 child safety seats, a national monthly record for such checks by a single auto dealership, according to officials at the Washington-based National Safe Kids campaign, an advocacy group dedicated to reducing childhood fatalities and injuries.

Of the 326 seats examined, only seven, a scant 2 percent, were installed the right way.

That means 319 infants and toddlers sitting in the incorrectly installed seats were at greater risk of death or injury in a vehicle crash, according to federal officials and auto safety advocates in privately funded groups.

That is why the government yesterday began the first phase of a regulatory program designed to ensure that all child safety seats are installed in all cars and trucks the same way--tightly anchored to the tops and bottoms of the vehicle seats.

The new rules require physical changes in both child safety seats and the automotive seats to which they are attached.

Phase one, for example, mandates the manufacture of safety seats with top attachment points, which can be used with tethers to tightly pull their headrests against the tops of car and truck seats. The top-tether safety seat rule is effective immediately.

By Sept. 1, 2000, all new passenger cars and light trucks--pickups, vans, minivans and sport-utility vehicles--must be built with anchors designed to hold those top safety seat tethers. Most major automakers, such as Volkswagen AG, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp., already have begun installing such anchors.

Volkswagen is offering top anchors in some of its 1999 cars, including the Jetta. Ford is putting the devices in its mid-size 2000 Focus sedans and wagons, which go on sale this fall. GM is putting the top anchors in its 2000 Chevrolet Impala, which went on sale this summer.

Most major car companies are offering and installing, free of charge, retrofit kits to accept the new top-tethered seats, which are designed to reduce head injuries to infants and toddlers in vehicle crashes.

Phase two of the new rules requires the manufacture of safety seats with lower and upper attachment points beginning Sept. 1, 2002. The lower attachments will mate with anchors built between the bottom and upper cushions of car and truck seats, thus preventing any movement of child safety seats that could result in spinal or other back injuries.

Conventional child safety seats use shoulder harnesses and lap belts for upper and lower attachments. But different seats require different belt loopings--threading the belts through various safety seat portals, said National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Ricardo Martinez.

"Those differences result in a lot of confusion and improper installations," Martinez said yesterday. "You get a lot of loose fits. The new rules are meant to make sure that all of those fits are nice and tight."

NHTSA estimates that, once fully in place, the rules could save the lives of 50 children annually and reduce by 3,000 the yearly number of crash injuries, many of them permanently disabling, suffered by infants and toddlers.

"This system will make child restraints safer, simpler and more secure," Martinez said. "It will be easier for parents to do the right thing to protect their children."

CAPTION: (This graphic was not available) Secure Seating