Brian and his family are getting ready for an exciting summer vacation trip, a long drive from Virginia to Wyoming. Along the way, they'll stop to visit relatives and to go camping. When they get to Wyoming, they'll explore Yellowstone National Park. Then they'll turn around and drive all the way back home again.
The family has made some basic plans for the trip. They'll drive only six hours each day, so no one gets too tired. They'll take rest breaks pretty often, so Brian and his 4-year-old sister Emily get a chance to run around. They're planning at least one interesting or fun stop each day -- maybe to taste a special piece of banana cream pie at a diner, to zoom down a water slide at an amusement park or to find out what's in the collection of an out-of-the-way museum.
They'll eat special snacks, play car games and listen to "talking books" on the tape cassette. Brian's mom has prepared treat bags to open every hundred miles or so. They might have gum or a puzzle or a fresh pack of crayons. Brian will be allowed to play his rap tapes for an hour each day -- but that's it. Emily will be allowed to listen to her Sesame Street songs for an hour, too. Their mom will get to play classical music whenever she wants, and no one is allowed to complain, including their dad.
Brian's parents haven't made many rules for their trip. But there is one rule that everyone in the family will obey every time they get in the car. Brian and his mom and dad will buckle their seat belts and keep them on. Emily will climb into her safety seat and stay buckled into it. There's a very simple reason for this unbreakable rule: Seat belts and safety seats save lives. Plus, it's the law. In all 50 states and the District, drivers and passengers are required to wear seat belts or use safety seats.
Most parents are pretty good about insisting that their kids sit in safety seats or buckle up. Last year, a survey showed that 81 percent of young car passengers sit in safety seats. But that means 19 percent of kids aren't protected. That's bad news, because car accidents are the leading cause of death and injury among kids over age 1 in the United States. They kill more children than any disease does. In 1988, nearly 700 children under 5 were killed in car accidents, and more than 100,000 were hurt. More than half of these deaths and injuries could have been prevented with the proper use of a car safety seat.
If your family is planning to drive somewhere, whether you're headed for North Carolina or the neighborhood movie theater, here are some safety tips. They come from the American Academy of Pediatrics, a national organization of children's doctors, and the national "Safe Kids" campaign.
Always use safety belts and safety seats. There are no exceptions, whether the passenger is a great-grandmother or a newborn baby on its way home from the hospital.
Never take a fussy child out of a safety seat in a moving car. If the child needs a break, stop the car.
If children release their seat belts or safety seats while the car is moving, stop the car and don't start until they're buckled back in.
Let young kids personalize their safety seats with stickers, racing stripes and their names. A toddler's more likely to use it without complaining if he feels it's his own special seat.
If you're driving a crowd of kids somewhere, make sure your car has one seat belt for each child. There are no exceptions to this rule.
Buckle lap belts low and snug across the hips, not the stomach.
If everyone follows these rules and obeys traffic laws about speeding and not driving after drinking alcohol, our roads could be pretty safe places. Brian's family plans to obey road safety rules. For them, the old saying that "getting there is half the fun" will come true. And thanks to seat belts, they'll get there, and home again, safely.
Tips for Parents
How can you tell when your child is ready to graduate from a safety seat to a regular seat belt? According to "Are You Using Your Car Seat Correctly?" -- an American Academy of Pediatrics brochure -- kids should use toddler seats as long as possible. If the shoulder belt of a regular seat belt crosses a child's throat, the child is too small for it and should use a safety seat or a booster seat instead. Children who weigh less than 40 pounds are safer in a car seat than in a booster seat with a regular seat belt. Booster seats are recommended for kids who weigh from 40 to 60 pounds. For more information on helping your child enjoy riding in a car, using car seats correctly, purchasing a car seat or transporting children with special needs, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to: Safe Ride Program, American Academy of Pediatrics, 141 Northwest Point Blvd., P.O. Box 927, Elk Grove Village, Ill. 60009-0927.
Catherine O'Neill is a freelance children's writer.