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Of rear-facing toddlers, missing e-mails and squeaky wheels
July 11, 2011 - Betsy Bethel
Are you aware that the guidelines for child safety seats have changed?
While not West Virginia law, the West Virginia Governors Highway Safety Program instituted a "curriculum change" in January incorporating the new guidelines into the training of its 218 child safety seat technicians statewide, according to state coordinator Trish Anderson. She said technicians are certified every two years, but she sent out a mass e-mail in January to all technicians informing them of the new guidelines.
Somehow, the e-mail missed the Wheeling Police Department's child safety seat technicians. They were not informed of the new guidelines until today.
The guidelines — from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration based on a policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics — state in part that all infants and toddlers should ride in a REAR-facing car safety seat until they are TWO (2) years old, or until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by the seat's manufacturer.
The reason for the policy change, according to the AAP, is to better support the child's neck and head, and "to distribute crash forces over the entire body." The guidelines were based on research by the University of Virginia and others using NHTSA statistics for crash victims ages 0-23 months from 1988-2003.
"Keep your child rear-facing as long as possible. It’s the best way to keep him or her safe," states NHTSA on its website.
Last week, however, Aimee Pokwatka of Newtown, Conn., a Wheeling native who was visiting her parents who still live locally, said she was told by a Wheeling police officer who is a car safety seat technician that her son's car seat had to be turned forward — because he was over the age of 1. That was the OLD guideline.
Pokwatka's son, Rainer, is 17 months old, weighs 25 pounds and is 32 1/2 inches tall — well within the AAP/NHTSA guidelines and manufacturer's recommendations for his Britax Boulevard seat, which says the weight limit is 35 pounds and the height limit is "within an inch of the top of the seat." Pokwatka said Rainer still has several inches to go.
Wheeling Police Chief Robert Matheny said this morning that the female officer — Nikki Anderson — was acting on the training she had received and that she was concerned not with the child's age as much as that the child's legs would be too long for the rear-facing seat.
"Nonetheless, I've instructed Sgt. (Phil) Redford to contact the Governors Safety Program to make sure we're compliant because we certainly want to do what's best for children's safety," Matheny said.
Even my first thought when I heard the new recommendations last year (See my "Safety First" blog post from August 2010) was: "What will they do with their legs!?" My daughter has always been near the 100th percentile or higher for height. How could her legs have possibly fit in a rear-facing seat until age 2?
On the AAP's HealthyChildren.org website, which has an extensive (eight-page) document titled "Car Safety Seats: Information for Families for 2011," it recognizes the most common question of parents regarding the new guidelines is "What if my baby's feet touch the back of the vehicle seat?"
Their answer is that the child can bend his legs easily and "will be comfortable in a convertible seat. Injuries to the legs are rare for children facing the rear."
"Obviously, this technician was not aware of the new guidelines," said Trish Anderson, but she added that Officer Anderson did not violate any laws or procedures, and that she was only "concerned for the safety of the child."
"I've provided this technician and the coordinator (Redford) again with these new recommendations (today) to ensure they understand," Trish Anderson said. "Why they did not receive it prior, I can't say. ... Sgt. Redford has assured me that he will make sure all the technicians are aware."
Pokwatka said she instructed her mother to leave the Wheeling station after the seat was uninstalled. "I was able to receive better-informed assistance later from Tara Smith, the Child Passenger Safety Technician at the Belmont County Health Department" in St. Clairsville.
Kudos to Ms. Smith for being up to date on the current recommendations that ensure our children's safety.
And I am certainly glad Ms. Pokwatka contacted the police department and the media following her experience. They say the squeaky wheel gets the grease. And, who knows, maybe in this case it will end up saving a child's life.
For more information about car seat safety, visit the websites in the Blog Links box.
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This photo of a rear-facing toddler sitting cross-legged accompanies the AAP's HealthyChildren article on Car Seat Safety.