Parents shopping the toy aisles this holiday season need to be aware of hidden dangers. According to a report released yesterday by U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG), its 14th annual nationwide survey found 34 dangerous toys when surveying toy stores in October and November.

Among the hazardous toys:

* "Totables Party Gear Children's Makeup and Jewelry Set"

* "Bettina Casual Wear Doll"

* "Fire Bellied Toad Dimensional Puzzle"

Rachel Weintraub, U.S. PIRG staff attorney and the author of this year's "Trouble in Toyland" report, says the seemingly perennial findings are "in some ways surprising," especially since the number of toy hazards appears to be declining, and the majority of toys now include hazard warnings.

"But the biggest danger that we found, and still the leading cause of toy-related deaths, is the choking hazard of small parts, balloons and small balls," she says. "Most often, these toys are required by federal law to have a strict choking hazard warning--but a number of them didn't."

At least 174 children died from 1990 to 1998 playing with toys, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the federal agency that tries to preempt such accidents-in-the-making before they get to store shelves or into children's hands. There were 14 toy-related deaths in 1998--eight from choking. Of an estimated 153,400 persons treated in emergency rooms for toy-related injuries in 1998, almost half were children under 5.

Many of the hazardous toys were imported, made in China, and inexpensive. "Those types of dangerous toys are usually found in dollar stores, drug stores and party stores," says Weintraub.

Another category of dangerous toys cited in the survey are those containing toxic and possibly cancer-causing chemicals known as phthalates and added as a softener to polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic toys such as infant teethers, soft baby blocks and children's playbooks. The CPSC a year ago concluded few if any children are at risk from the chemical in toys because they don't ingest a harmful amount. But two weeks ago, the European Union imposed an emergency ban on toys containing phthalates designed for children 3 years and under, and required labeling on those toys for older children.

Survey details are available at U.S. PIRG's Web site, http:/www.pirg.org/consumer/products/toy/99/.

Buckling Crackdown

The nickname "Deadbeat Drivers" sound harsh? Not to a coalition of automobile safety and law enforcement organizations who coined the label for drivers who admit they shirk their responsibility to buckle up their children--despite knowing that it is required by law and that car crashes are the leading killer of kids.

According to a survey released yesterday by the Air Bag and Seat Belt Safety Campaign, in cooperation with the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 13 percent of drivers don't always buckle up their kids. They also acknowledge that the only way to change their high-risk behavior is with severe penalties.

The survey's release coincides with a nationwide crackdown called "Operation ABC Mobilization" involving 7,000 law enforcement agencies in all 50 states to enforce child-passenger seatbelt and safety laws.

"The survey shows that this kind of enforcement is exactly what needs to be done to get deadbeat drivers to buckle up kids," says Janet Dewey, executive director of the Air Bag and Seat Belt Safety Campaign.

Dewey says there's nothing rational behind deadbeat driver's willful disregard of their children's safety. Only 41 percent of them reported that they buckled up themselves, compared to 73 percent of all Americans.

Meanwhile, 78 percent of Americans agreed in the survey that deadbeat drivers should be considered guilty of child endangerment.