Child safety seat restraints will be required in virtually all automobiles in Virginia starting Jan. 1, and in the District of Columbia starting July 1. In Maryland, meanwhile, legislators can expect to be urged to pass a law requiring car child restraints when they convene in mid-January.

It's all part of a national campaign launched by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to get states to pass laws requiring parents to put children in child safety restraint seats whenever they ride in cars. The NTSB estimates that about 650 children are killed and more than 5,000 either seriously injured or permanently disabled each year in car crashes.

"The most tragic aspects of these losses is that they are needless -- as much as 90 percent of the fatalities and the great majority of the injuries could have been prevented by the proper use of child safety seats," said Patricia Goldman, vice chairman of the board.

Washington area residents who go shopping for safety seats will find a wide -- and sometimes confusing -- range of shapes and sizes. The price, which may start as low as $30 and go as high as $100, depends on the style and whether you buy the no-frills or the fancy model.

But the most important point for shoppers to consider is whether the seat has met the federal safety standard which requires that, in a crash of up to 30 miles per hour, the seat won't be crushed and the child won't be ejected.

All car seats manufactured since Jan. 1, 1981, must comply with the standard. However, shoppers sometimes confuse the federally-tested car seats with other types of infant and child carriers which were not intended to serve as car restraint systems, Goldman said.

"The little infant carrier--which is fine for feeding a child--isn't a car seat," Goldman said. "The infant carrier would crack and break in a car crash. They don't offer any protection."

To be sure that the child seat is a car seat, shoppers should look for the special label that identifies the product as a car seat, she said. If the product has the car seat label, then shoppers can be sure that it has passed the federal safety standard test.

Goldman cautioned that child car seats purchased at garage sales or handed down from one child to the next may have been manufactured before the federal standard was adopted and may not provide adequate protection. Some manufacturers voluntarily tested their car seat products before the standard was adopted, but some others didn't.

Parents who are uncertain about the safety of the child restraint system they see at a garage sale or that they are given by other members of their family or friends should check it carefully to see that none of the parts are frayed or missing and to make sure that the seat is adequately padded, she said. Additional padding -- an extra quilt, for example -- should be added if needed.

Other important considerations when choosing a car seat:

Age and size of the child. Some seats are designed only for "infants" (i.e., children up to 17-20 pounds). Some are only for "toddlers" and "preschoolers" (children who weigh between 17 and 40 to 60 pounds). And some are convertible types for both age groups (i.e., any child who weighs up to 40 to 43 pounds).

Convenience. If you want to use the car safety seat in more than one car, then you may want to consider a model that moves easily from one car to another. If you have a small car, you may want to consider the overall size and height of the car safety seat.

To help adults choose the proper car seat for their needs, a Maryland health department project called Project KISS (Kids In Safety Seats) has developed a "Consumer Guide to Car Safety Seats." The 21-page booklet illustrates and comments on currently available car safety seats. A copy of the guide can be obtained free by writing Project KISS, Health Education Center, Maryland Department of Health & Mental Hygiene, 300 W. Preston St., Baltimore, Md. 21201, or by telephoning Project KISS at 301-383-7290.

Once the car seat has been selected, the next step is to use it properly. That means installing and using it according to the manufacturer's directions.

Finally, there is the question of where to locate the seat in the car. According to the Maryland guide, car safety seats "should be used in the back seat whenever possible because it is the safest place in the car for your child to ride."