Buckling up isn't as easy as it sounds

How do parents of toddlers spell frustration?

C-A-R S-E-A-T-S.

Properly securing a child into a car seat often seems to require a PhD in mechanical engineering and the dexterity of Houdini.

Ask Kyle and Laura Johnston. Conscientious and responsible parents, they took a 10-day child safety course before their first child, Aaron, was born. Two years and another child later, they still struggle with buckling their children in.

"You're supposed to get the kid in tight, and sometimes it's really tough," Mr. Johnston says.

How tough?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been conducting safety clinics and running child seat safety checkpoints around the United States. And the findings have been disastrous. More than 90 percent of parents don't have their children properly secured, says a NHTSA highway safety specialist.

The most common problems: seats that aren't cinched tightly enough and kids who aren't belted into them tightly enough.

At one recent inspection station in Massachusetts, none of more than 200 seats were deemed safe. Many were damaged or so old they didn't meet current standards, says John Paul, a spokesman for the American Automobile Association.

Numbers that high indicate a systemic problem more than negligent parents, says Mr. Paul. So even if you think you know how to secure a child seat, it might be worth a refresher (see story below).

Meanwhile, relief - albeit gradual and expensive - is coming in September. New standards for child seats announced by NHTSA last month will mean parents no longer have to fight with seat belts to install child seats.

New cars sold in the US will have three solid anchorage points for car seats, two at the base, and one on top. By 2003, all new cars will include hardware for at least two child seats in the back seat.

Parents can choose between child seats with two folding bars that latch onto the brackets or a built-in belt with a hook for the brackets (see diagram).

The new system should add about $3 to the cost of every car and $15 to the cost of child seats. The seats should comply with standards in Canada and other countries to ease cross-border travel and trade.

The NHTSA estimates that the new system will prevent 3,000 injuries and 50 deaths a year.

Critics applaud the new standard, but say it isn't enough. Parents with old-style child seats will have to buy a new car as well as a new car seat to utilize the new system.

"The NHTSA's rule solves half the problem, and it doesn't solve it for a long time," says Elaine Weinstein of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), a government watchdog agency. She estimates it will be nine years before most people have car seats with the new system, and says parents will still need help installing them.

The NTSB recommends setting up installation stations, where experts properly secure car seats.

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