As a parent, we spend tons of time researching the best car seats and the latest car seat safety guidelines. But car seat safety is only a small part of the big picture when it comes to keeping kids safe in and around cars. There are lots of hidden hazards to be aware of—some obvious, others not so much.
But it’s time to get educated: A new study by the Journal of Traffic Injury Prevention looked at data from 1990 to 2014 and found that while kids tend to be safer in traffic accidents now due to stringent car seat guidelines, the number of non-traffic fatalities (incidents that occur outside of driving situations, such as in parking lots and driveways) are still prevalent.
Ready to brush up on car safety tips—beyond just making sure your car seat is installed properly? Here, we’ve compiled a list of must-dos to help your kiddos safe in and around cars.
1. Avoid Letting Kids Eat in the Car
We’ve all heard the jokes about mom’s minivan being a sea of discarded cheerios and goldfish crackers. And it makes sense—after all, it can feel like we spend half our lives driving around in the car, so at some point, snacktime is going to roll around. But giving kids food while in the car can unfortunately turn deadly if you don’t use caution. Most safety organizations recommend skipping snacks in the car altogether, pointing out that if a child were to accidentally choke (and a bumpy ride can up that risk), you may not even notice, especially if your child is still rear-facing. The best practice is to offer a snack before getting in the car, and then use toys for entertainment while driving instead of relying on tasty treats. If that’s not possible, opt for safe snacks like an applesauce pouch or yogurt tube.
2. Hold Hands in the Parking Lot
Some things never change, and this age-old safety tip is proof. Children who aren’t yet old enough to understand that they need to stay by your side in a parking lot should always be required to hold your hand until they reach the safety of the sidewalk. We know, this one is responsible for tons of tantrums and meltdowns, especially as toddlers approach the infamous “all by myself” phase, but it’s critical when it comes to car safety.
3. Check the Back Seat Before Getting Out
One of the biggest issues parents face today when it comes to car safety for kids is “vehicular hyperthermia”—aka heat stroke that results from unintentionally leaving kids in a hot car. With the number of hot car deaths reaching an all-time high of 51 in 2018, it’s crucial that every parent who drives with kids (and especially with kids in rear-facing car seats) have a routine in place to avoid accidentally leaving them behind. Some parents leave essential belongings like their phone or wallet in the backseat with baby, while others use stickers or stuffed animals as a way of jogging their memory before exiting their vehicle. It’s fine to use whichever tactic works for you. What’s not fine? Assuming it’ll never happen to you. Science shows even the best of parents can forget; the human brain goes on autopilot when we do routine tasks, like driving to work every morning, and when we’re in that mode, our brains can create false memories—so you can be positive you dropped your kid at daycare when you really didn’t. Take precautions to ensure this never happens to you.
4. Make Sure Sleeping Kids Are in Safe Positions
Even if you picked out an appropriate car seat for your child’s age, the positions kids get into when they fall asleep while you’re driving can sometimes spark concern. So how can you keep kids safe if they have a tendency to snooze in the car? “Anytime your child falls asleep in the car, regardless of the type of seat they’re using, it’s important that they remain buckled and in the proper position,” says Suzanne Johannson, a child passenger safety engineer for General Motors. “Most high-back boosters and convertible car seats provide a headrest for the child when they’re sleeping, but with rear-facing children, it’s important to ensure the child’s chin isn’t touching the chest to keep the airways open. Keeping the harness straps snug and positioned at the manufacturer-recommended height will help keep your child in the proper position while sleeping.”
5. Secure Pets and Loose Articles
It’s fun to ride around town with your furry friend in the car, but it can prove dangerous—and not just for the animal. Johannson advises that pets should always be restrained, either in a crate or carrier or behind a cargo barrier, during car trips to prevent them from becoming a projectile. “A pet that weighs 50 pounds, in a 35 mph collision, is projected forward like a cannonball with 1,500 pounds of force,” Katharine Miller, the director of applied science and research for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, told the LA Times. That’s more than enough to injure or kill a small child, even in a minor collision.
6. Lock the Car When It’s In the Driveway
It’s not just about preventing theft: While it might seem like a minor detail, keeping your car locked while parked in the garage or driveway is actually one of the best ways to keep your kids safe around your car. And for so many reasons. Data from NoHeatstroke.org shows that 26 percent of all child vehicular heat stroke fatalities are due to children gaining access to unattended vehicles. “Educate your kids about the dangers of playing in a parked car, and always keep vehicle doors locked in the driveway to keep children from entering the vehicle,” says Johannson. “This also prevents them from playing with the controls of the vehicle.” Accidentally putting a vehicle into gear could lead to dangers like running over a sibling or another child, pulling out into oncoming traffic or sending the vehicle careening into the home.
7. Keep Kids from Playing Around the Car
Similarly, kids shouldn’t play around a parked car either. While it might seem harmless if the vehicle is parked and the emergency brake is engaged, letting kids play near a parked car creates a false sense of safety. It can be hard for young kids to understand the difference between a parked car and a car that’s about to back up, so it’s better to instill safe habits early on.
8. Teach Kids What a Reversing Car Looks Like
Another way to install safe habits early on? Teach your kids what a car looks like when it’s about to back up. This simple but often-overlooked tip comes from AJ T. Cole, author of the book Zero, a policy for safe driving behavior based on Vision Zero principles. He says, “As soon as little ones become mobile, teach them what to look for in a vehicle that’s about to back up. Teach them what the reverse tail lights look like, or what that beeping sound is for when a larger vehicle is backing up.”
9. Roll Windows Down Before Backing Up
Most vehicles these days have reliable backup cameras, which have been super-helpful in avoiding running over small children while backing up. But it’s still good practice to roll your windows down, keep the radio off and back up slowly, especially when there are children nearby. This lets you clearly hear what’s going on around you, especially if someone were to yell for you to stop.
10. Keep Windows on Child Lock at All Times
While many newer car models have taken steps to make power windows safer for children, it’s still a good idea to keep windows on child lock at all times while kids are in the car, whether moving or parked. Power windows can exert an upward force of 30 to 80 pounds, but it takes just 22 pounds of force to suffocate or injure an infant, according to safety website KidsandCars.org.
11. Keep Your Phone in the Backseat
Andrew Roszak, executive director of the Institute for Childhood Preparedness, has a great tip that pulls double duty: “Place your phone on the floor board below your child’s car seat,” he advises. “This not only prevents texting while driving but also reminds you to always open the back car door and check for the baby.”
12. Teach Kids to Look Left, Right, Left
Your kids may be several years away from crossing the street by themselves, but it’s never too early to start teaching safe crossing habits. Often, parents use vague phrases like, “watch out for cars” or “look both ways,” but the “look left, right, left” technique is specific and practical. Whenever crossing a road, you should first look left, then right, but then always look left a second time to make sure a car hasn’t come up while your head was turned. As an additional safety precaution, continue looking both ways until you reach the sidewalk. Practice this with toddlers while they’re holding your hand as you cross the street, so when they’re old enough to cross alone, they’ll be more than prepared.
Published September 2019
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