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Proper car-seat installation called vital

Katelyn Stillwell has a car seat to thank for her son's life after an accident left her in the hospital a few years ago.

Her 3-year-old son, Jamie, was securely strapped into a booster seat when another vehicle crashed into the side of Stillwell's Plymouth Voyager van. Just a month before the accident, Stillwell, 30, had the car seat checked by local officials who found it improperly installed, which could have sent Jamie flying upon impact instead of safe and sound.

"The accident was bad enough, but it could've been so much worse," said Stillwell, a Salt Lake resident. "My baby is my life. I don't know what I would do if he wasn't OK."

Yet officials have grown concerned about car seat safety for children under 8 who are supposed to be secured by a booster or other seat approved for children. Statistics show that four out of five parents don't know how to properly install or set up a child seat.

As the injury prevention program manager for the Salt Lake Valley Health Department, Kathy Chambers helps parents install car seats despite the age of the vehicle or type of seat. But Chambers said even fewer parents than statistics indicate actually have a secure car seat.

"I'd say in the last 10 years, I've personally seen maybe six done perfect," Chambers said. "Some of the mistakes weren't too bad, but others were dangerous."

Multiple mistakes, which can vary from loose seat belts or harnesses to poor restraints, can cause injury in children in the case of an accident.

"The more movement, the more likely to move forward, which can result in a head injury or spinal column injury," said Janet Brooks, child advocacy manager at Primary Children's Medical Center. "If the harness isn't tight, they can come forward and move into the vehicle space in front of them and possibly hit something."

The Safe Kids Coalition offers classes for parents to learn about proper safety seat installation, and seat checkpoints are available at local fire departments and the state health department, Primary Children's Medical Center and other locations. Christi Fisher, Safe Kids Utah director, said the program plans to increase classes in the next two to three years with grants.

A study at Indiana University tested the parents of 565 children on belt-positioning booster seats and experts found at least one mistake for nearly 65 percent of the kids.

"I was a little bit taken aback that nearly two out of three children had at least one misuse," said Joseph O'Neil, an Indiana University pediatrics professor who was part of the study published in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention. "Either the belt was too loose, it wasn't positioned right, it was behind the back, it was under their arm, it was over the arm rest."

If a child is buckled in a regular seat belt, however, the consequences can be even worse. Brooks said many children too small to be in a seat belt put the arm strap behind their arm, which in the case of an accident means the lower part of the belt digs into the child's stomach, some belts cutting in as far as the spinal column.

The Utah Safety Council initiated a Buckle Up for Love program where people can report the license plate of a moving vehicle where a child is not properly strapped into a seat.

Jessica Clark, Utah Safety Council information specialist, said the program has received more than 37,000 calls about children hanging out of windows and other unsafe behavior. The program sends information packets to the offending families encouraging them to buckle up.

Brooks said most parents are very motivated to protect their kids, but often don't know how to install the seat right because of multiple makes and models of cars and seat designs.

"I recall seeing a couple of kids in our emergency room who were completely unrestrained. They had hit each other's heads," Brooks said. "Most parents try, though."