Car seats shoulder safety

Sue Littnan demonstrates in August 2011 where the straps of a child's car seat should touch when the child is properly strapped into the seat.

The leading cause of death for the nation’s children ages 3-14 is not cancer, drowning, or house fires: it’s being a passenger in a motor vehicle.

And many of those deaths can be avoided, say national traffic agencies and local safety advocates. In an accident, the best chance a child has is a car seat, many studies show — but many children here and elsewhere ride without one, in part due to the cost, which can run into the hundreds of dollars.

To that end, one local agency is working to let Citrus County parents know they don't have to pay the sticker price. Many parents qualify for subsidized car seats, according to the Early Learning Coalition of the Nature Coast, but either don't know or don't ask for help.

Of the 723 children ages 12 years and younger who died nationally as motor vehicle occupants in 2016, 35 percent were unrestrained, according to Safe Ride 4 Kids, an online advocacy group. Another 128,000 in that age group were injured.

Florida and Citrus County’s stats are no better.

In Florida, 92 children ages 14 and younger died in motor vehicle accidents in 2017, the latest year data was readily available. It was also the leading cause of death for people aged 5 years to 19 years.

In Citrus County, there were 26 children from ages 1 to 5 in 2016 who were either seriously injured or died in motor vehicle accidents, according to Florida Health Charts. That was above the Florida average rate and the highest for Citrus County since 1999. Other age groups were not available.

Sue Littnan wants to change some of those statistics.

Littnan is the child passenger safety program coordinator for the Early Learning Coalition of the Nature Coast. The agency sells car seats at significantly reduced prices to families with children getting Medicaid or families who receive food assistance. The agency also sells the seats at reduced rates to families with special financial circumstances.

The agency sold 150 care seats between July 1, 2018 and March 31, 2019, Littnan said.

During the same period, the agency also performed 166 car-seat inspections. Of those, 10 children arrived in no car seat or a booster, Littnan said. 

Some of the reasons for not having car seats were because the child outgrew their car seat, or the car seat was damaged in a collision, she said. Most parents do bring their kids in some type of restraint, she said.

But of those 166 inspections, nearly 20 percent also arrived in the wrong kind of car seat for their age, height or weight.

Part of the issue is getting the word out about the program.

This is the 20th year that Littnan has overseen the program, but still hears county residents tell her they didn’t know it existed.

“I see it all the time,” she said.

Littnan wants more Citrus County residents to apply for the reduced-priced car seats. They cost users $30. She also wants people who already have car seats inspected. There’s no coast for that’s service.

She can be reached at 352-563-9939, ext. 235.

Littnan estimates that there are about as many area residents who would qualify for the car seat subsidy but did not apply as those who did and received one.

Car seats also expire. The manufacturer either stamps the expiration date on the rear of the seat or the date it was manufactured. The seats expire after six years, so Littnan warns about hand-me-down seats and those you can buy at thrift stores.

Here are Florida’s car-seat laws by age. Newborns and children up to 3 years old must use a separate carrier device or a manufacturer’s integrated child seat. Children ages 4 to 5 must use a separate carrier, an integrated child’s seat or a child’s booster seat. Children ages 6 and up are not required to sit in a child seat, but are required to wear seat belts.

But Littnan thinks that children are too young at 6 to not be in a child or booster seat. Regardless of age, Littnan said children need to be in appropriate seats.

The seats save lives, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Using a car seat reduces the risk of death to infants under a year old by 71 percent, according to the CDC. For toddlers, that figure is 54 percent.

For children ages 4 to 8, using a booster seat reduces the risk of serious injury or death by 45 percent when compared to those children using only seat belts, according to the CDC.

But even when they are used, there can be problems.

A 2016 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 59 percent of car seats and 20 percent of booster seats were misused or not properly installed.

Littnan said that the cause for the improperly installed seats is usually due to owners not reading the seat’s instructions, confusion because of the variety of car seat brands, or because vehicles vary so much, or because each vehicle has unique seatbelt designs.

But her message to every parent she sees and every group she makes presentations to: “Take car-seat safety seriously.”

Contact Chronicle reporter Fred Hiers at fred.hiers@chronicleonline.com or 352-397-5914.