The Regulators column in last Friday's Business section, relying on information supplied by General Motors Corp., misstated why GM was involved in the National Safe Kids Buckle Up Campaign, a child passenger safety program. The company's involvement was not part of a 1995 agreement with the Department of Transportation to settle an investigation into the safety of Chevrolet pickup trucks. (Published 09/16/1999)
How many ways are there to install a child seat in a car, truck or minivan?
DaimlerChrysler Corp., painfully, has discovered some 100,000 possible combinations of car seats, child car seats, seat-belt systems and vehicles that its "technicians" must master before they are ready on Sept. 15 to do the real thing: Show parents how to correctly install their particular model of child safety seat when they roll up to a dealership, child in tow.
For this reason, 30 employees from 18 Washington area DaimlerChrysler dealerships participating in a pilot program called "Fit for a Kid" have had their noses in a four-inch training manual for four days, trying to figure out the intricacies of rear-facing, convertible, forward-facing and booster seats in combination with four types of seat-belt latch plates and several types of seat belts.
The curriculum, which was written by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, requires technicians to pass the written portion of the test with an 85 percent score and to pass other hands-on checks that determine whether they can do what parents cannot: Get a child seat in the car correctly.
Robert Wall, a Fairfax County police officer who is directing the training of technicians for DaimlerChrysler, said participants always are disbelieving when they learn it will take four days to learn how to put a baby seat in a car. He said police officers whom he has trained over the years come into the class wondering how it could possibly take that long, especially when they spend 40 hours on firearms training.
"It's very hard to justify on the first day," said Wall. "They want to know what we'll be doing all week. But after a day, most cops say they might need five days."
What the training program is trying to fix is a big problem that has been identified by NHTSA and the National Transportation Safety Board: Some 80 percent of car seats are not installed properly.
"We have created vehicle seating that is very comfortable and protective for adults," said Cheryl Neverman, highway safety specialist with NHTSA. "It makes it nearly impossible to install a child seat correctly and tightly. You have to understand the belt system, understand the shape of the vehicle's seats and then choose the right child seat."
DaimlerChrysler, when it announced its program last April, could hardly imagine what it would take to launch a national seat-check program, beyond the commitment of time to training.
The company had to figure out such things as how many loaner car seats it needs to have on hand at dealerships if checkers find that seats had been recalled or were in bad repair. How many people would show up for checks? How should the telephone be answered so parents got the correct scheduling information at dealerships? Who were the best people to send to training? What if they left after dealers invested all that time in their training? Should Mercedes dealerships be brought into the program?
The goal is to have the capacity to conduct 800,000 inspections a year for Dodge, Plymouth and Chrysler customers by November 2000. Dealers in the program schedule the service, much as they do a brake job, and they pledge to dedicate four hours weekly to checks. Fisher Price has solved the loaner seat question: It will donate 5,000 of them by November 2000.
National Transportation Safety Board Chairman James Hall, who has been advocating a national system of child seat "fitting stations," hopes other auto companies will follow suit for their customers.
"Incorrect installation of child safety seats is a service problem and if automakers follow the leadership shown by DaimlerChrysler, the problem will be addressed," said Hall.
General Motors Corp., the sponsor of the National Safe Kids Buckle Up campaign, a coalition of health and safety professionals involved in child safety issues, has approached the problem differently.
GM, as part of a settlement with NHTSA over an alleged fuel tank problem it had with some of its pickup trucks, has spent $5 million on training 4,200 seat checkers from the coalition and has sponsored 1,000 events across the country where more than 33,000 seats have gotten the once over.
GM said it also is considering offering fitting stations at its own dealerships.
Jack Fitzgerald, owner of Fitzgerald Auto Park, who has been a pioneer in sponsoring seat checks, is offering his Colonial Dodge dealership for the launch of the DaimlerChrysler pilot program in Washington on Wednesday.
Fitzgerald is no novice at this: He has had 80 employees put through the NHTSA course over the past few years and is responsible for some 3,000 seats being inspected locally. Fitzgerald said he's glad DaimlerChrysler is plunging into the seat check business. He will participate in the program, but keep on sponsoring his own big events, which typically draw hundreds of cars.
"I'd just like to be overloaded with people," said Fitzgerald. "I'm not a Hillary Clinton, but adults have a responsibility to see kids are safe.