New car safety advice tells parents that a child wearing a coat in a car seat is at risk in the event of an accident, but one cold weather expert is raising flags about this potentially harmful suggestion, for a completely different reason.
A recent segment on the “Today” show reported that parents should remove their child’s coat before putting him or her in the the car seat to ensure they are strapped in snugly. The report suggests that coats — especially the “puffy” style — are likely to create extra space between the harness and the child, putting the child at risk for injury or death in an accident.
“Today” cites crash test videos that show tiny dummies in puffy coats being hurled from the car seat. Miriam Manary, who runs the crash test lab at the University of Michigan, told “Today” that parents should ensure that the harness is snug against the child’s chest, and that it should be tight enough that you not be able to pinch any part of the strap together. She also suggests taking off the child’s puffy winter jacket before putting him or her in the car seat.
Sue Auriemma from the safety advocacy group Kids and Cars told “Today” that, in lieu of actually wearing a warm winter coat, parents can cover their children with their coats to keep them warm, or even use a blanket.
But the recommendation struck a nerve with Tanja Fransen, the meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service in Glasgow, Mont. “Terrible advice,” she said.
As a Weather Service meteorologist, Fransen has been teaching weather safety courses for over 15 years. She says that wearing a coat in the winter is the difference between life and death when you’re driving on rural roads. The only thing you’re doing when you take your child’s winter coat off, she argues, is exposing them to yet another danger in the car. Especially if you’re unconscious and unable to keep yourself or your child warm.
“Most people live in an urban or suburban area where you’re going to get help quickly,” Fransen told The Washington Post. But in rural areas, it could be tens of minutes until help arrives, or even hours if no one was there to see the crash and call for help.
“If you roll your car,” Fransen said, “the cellphone is gone and it is a stroke of luck if it’s within reach when you’re hanging upside down.” And blanket or coat that’s meant to keep a child warm while driving isn’t going to do much good after the car has rolled.
Fransen recounted heartbreaking stories from Montana where passengers who weren’t killed by the accident died rather from hypothermia while waiting for help. There was the father, four years ago, who got the phone call that his 19-year-old daughter had been in an accident with her friends. They were wearing flannel pajama pants and long-sleeve shirts. Then there was the man who swerved off the road in the winter — authorities didn’t find him in his car until the next season.
Fransen says she understands the issue with the “puffy” coats that tend to be bulky and slippery. But she still recommends that kids wear a non-puffy coat while in their in car seat, and that parents take special care to make sure they are strapped in tightly. “Follow the car seat recommendations — I’m all for that,” Fransen said. “But also consider where you are. What works for an urban environment doesn’t necessarily work for a rural one.”
For Kids and Cars, though, the line is clear. “There shouldn’t be any exception because it’s just not safe,” Kids and Cars director Amber Rollins told The Washington Post. “First you have to survive the accident. If you don’t survive the accident, then this is not an issue.”
Rollins says that there’s a critical difference between a regular winter coat and the new “puffy” coats that have become popular recently. “Those create so much space between the body and the straps that they are just not safe,” Rollins said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests removing a child’s coat before putting them in the car, though they do not cite the risk that the coat will cause the child to slip out of the car seat. Instead, they say that coats and bulky clothing “can compress in a crash and lead to increased risk of injury.”
But in rural places such as Glasgow — where the the average December temperature is just 16 degrees — Fransen says the bottom line is to prepare yourself for the cold weather.
“For us,” said Fransen, “it’s a matter of survival.”