Having a properly installed car seat can help save lives yet many parents unknowingly make mistakes when using them. Jackie Stackhouse Leach, health educator and child passenger safety instructor at Morristown Medical Center, is dedicated to making sure parents know how to install car seats correctly and that they are secure. Stackhouse Leach was named the Child Passenger Safety Instructor of the Year for 2022 by the National Child Passenger Safety Board.

Car Seats Save Lives

“Right now, nationally, 4 out 5 car seats are misused every day,” says Stackhouse Leach. “That’s huge.” In 2015 New Jersey law changed stating that children should be in a rear-facing car seat until a minimum of 2 years of age, or until they weigh 30 pounds. Parents should choose a car seat based on the child’s age and size. Be sure to check the charts to see whether your little one should be in a rear-facing car seat, a forward-facing car seat, a booster, or secured with a seat belt. Find the correct car seat, install it correctly and make sure your child is safe in his or her seat.

Stackhouse Leach says kids often transition to a booster too early, with the result being an improper fit with no upper body support. “In New Jersey, the law says you need to be 57 inches to be out of the booster,” she says. “That’s pretty tall.” When using a booster, the child’s butt should be to the back of the seat and the shoulder portion of the belt should be at the top of the shoulder.

The best way for kids to learn and practice car safety is for parents to model it. “If parents aren’t doing it, kids aren’t doing it,” she says. Oftentimes, many parents, especially those in underserved communities, will have kids who aren’t in car seats at all, which can result in them being ejected from the vehicle in an accident. “It’s been a huge thing we are working on,” she says. As for common mistakes she sees, it’s often that harnesses are not tight enough to the chest. There needs to be a snug fit in order for them to do their job.

“If it’s a forward-facing seat they are misusing the seat belt,” she says. Many people are also unaware that cars come with two sets of latches that make it easier to anchor the car seat in the vehicle.

If New Jersey parents want help installing their car seats, she recommends visiting law enforcement, since many counties have programs to install car seats and help with car safety.

Hitting the Road

While many families are hitting the road in an RV, Stackhouse Leach says that there’s actually no way to do that safely.

“Because of COVID everyone is buying RV’s but they are not safe to travel for families,” she says. “Car seats are not crash-tested in RVs. There are no bench seats in RV’s so there’s no safe way to use them.” So unless you can drive a car behind the RV you may want to reconsider your choice of transportation.

Limit the Stuff

Water bottles, snacks, toys–your kids likely bring all of these things even on a short car trip. But Stackhouse Leach says that they all become dangerous projectiles in a crash.

Stackhouse Leach recommends strapping down larger items such as strollers and backpacks. Be aware that mirrors that help you keep an eye on baby in the back and even video screens that keep little ones entertained are best left home. Not only could they all go flying they’re all also major distractions to safe driving. Even if not having this stuff causes your kids to cry, that’s better than them getting hurt. You can always safely pull over to make sure everyone is happy.

Bring Your Own Seat

When it comes to airline travel, it’s always best to Bring Your Own Seat (car seat, that is). “Pay extra and take that car seat with you,” Stackhouse Leach says, warning that holding your child in your arms will not protect them in the event of a crash.

As for the car seats you can get from rental car companies, take a pass and bring your own instead. You never know if those seats are expired, if they have been washed or if they’ve been in an accident.

No Front Seat

Stackhouse Leach says kids should not be in the front seat of the car until age 13, and not just because they’ll try and control the heat, A/C and music. “That airbag is designed for adults, not children,” she says.

Restrain Pets

If Spot is coming along on your trip, make sure he’s buckled in. That means crating your dog or putting him in a harness. A pet that’s crawling around in the car is not only unsafe for the pet and the other passengers, it’s against New Jersey law.

Don’t Be a Statistic

“NJ State Police keeps track of fatalities,” says Stackhouse Leach. “In 2020 there were 132 fatalities. In 2021, it was 152 and now in 2022 it’s already 173.” Those numbers are going up, not down, and many are due to the fact that people are unrestrained in vehicles.

“We’re not taking it seriously,” she says.  “A lot of times it’s just about the education. Parents just don’t know. Just get your seat checked. Check for recalls on car seats and even on vehicles.”

By following these safety measures, you and your family can have a fun and safe summer of travel.