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Child car safety concerns

Key considerations when buying a family vehicle

Last updated: April 2014

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If you're in the market for a family car, child safety is very likely one of your top priorities. There are a number of issues, features, and options that you should know about when evaluating and selecting the right vehicle for your family's needs.

Blind zones

Every year, children are injured and killed because drivers don't see them while backing up. According to KIDS AND CARS, a nonprofit group whose mission is to improve child safety in and around cars, at least 50 children are backed over every week in the U.S. Forty-eight are treated in hospital emergency rooms and at least 2 children die. A contributing factor is that some big vehicles, such as SUVs, pickups, and minivans, have larger blind spots—the area behind a vehicle that the driver can't see.

To check a vehicle's blind spot, sit in the driver's seat of the parked vehicle while someone stands in back and holds out a hand at about waist level. Have the person walk back slowly until you can see the hand through the rear window. This will give you an idea of how big that vehicle's blind spot is. (See our report on blind spots and backover accidents.)

Some vehicles have al rear-view video camera that gives the driver a wide-angle view of much of the area that's usually hidden in the blind spot. The scene appears in an in-dash display. In March 2014, NHTSA has passed a regulation that backup cameras will be required to be installed in all vehicles by May 2018.  When used regularly, these systems can be an effective aid in reducing back-over accidents. On cars that do not have them standard, they are typically expensive and usually offered as part of a navigation package that can run well over $2,000. There are also aftermarket camera systems costing between $200 and $700 that can be installed on any vehicle.

Many vehicles are also available with a parking-assist system that uses sensors in the vehicle's rear to alert the driver to solid objects behind the vehicle. Such systems are also available as aftermarket add-ons, priced around $300 to $400. In Consumer Reports tests, we've found that these systems work well as parking aids but aren't reliable enough to be used as safety aids.

Child safety seats

Child safety seats save lives and should be used until a child is big enough to use the vehicle's regular safety belt. The traditional method of attaching a child seat called for using the vehicle's safety belts. Still, incompatibilities between the car's safety belts, the car seats, and the child safety seats often have made a good, tight fit difficult and sometimes impossible to achieve.

Vehicles made after Sept. 1, 2002, are required to have the Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) system. It has built-in lower anchors and ready-to-use tether attachment points, allowing compatible child safety seats to be installed without using the vehicle's safety-belt system. The LATCH system simplifies child safety seat installation when an owner installs a LATCH-compatible child seat.

The system doesn't work equally well in all vehicles. In many cars, the new attachment points are obscured or difficult to reach, so it's not easy to use them even with some of the newest child seats. In other models, the LATCH anchors are positioned too far out from the vehicle's seat, making it difficult to secure the child seat tightly against the rear seat's back cushion. Try your child seat in the vehicle before you buy.

Power-window switches

Small children have suffered injuries and even died from accidents involving power windows. Typically, the child is left in the car with the engine running or keys in the ignition. The child leans his or her head out the window of a parked car and then accidentally leans or kneels on the window switch. The glass moves up forcefully, choking the child. Because the window can quickly crush the windpipe, the child cannot scream for help.

Two types of switches are inherently riskier than others if they're mounted horizontally on the door's armrest: Rocker switches move the glass up when you press one end of the switch, down when you press the other. Toggle switches work when pushed forward or pulled back.

The lever switch is safer because it makes it almost impossible to raise the window accidentally. Lever switches must be pulled up to raise the glass. Switches of any design mounted vertically or on an upswept armrest are also harder to activate by accident.

Lever switches and auto reverse sensors are common in Europe. But auto reverse is required in the U.S. only in vehicles with auto/one-touch-up windows and remotely controlled windows. A safety regulation enacted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in late 2004 mandated that all new vehicles be equipped with safer window switches. Automakers, now have to comply fully.

In the meantime, there are plenty of vehicles that still have the riskier designs. You should definitely look for cars with lever switches when shopping for a family vehicle, particularly if you have younger children.

For more information: Every road-test report for each vehicle that is published in Consumer Reports magazine or online at ConsumerReports.org has a section called Driving with Kids, where issues such as LATCH problems, safety-belt troubles, head-restraint shortcomings, and child comfort are discussed.

   

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