May 2, 2011 -- Children as young as 1 year old can unbuckle themselves from car safety seats, a new survey of parents finds.
"We found that children can unbuckle from their child car safety seats by their fourth birthday, and there is an alarming 43% who do so when the car is in motion," says researcher Lilia Reyes, MD, a clinical fellow in pediatric emergency medicine at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven. "It was reported as early as 12 months."
The findings are being presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting in Denver.
Child Car Seats: How Secure?
While working in the pediatric emergency room at Yale, Reyes encountered two different mothers who had minor car accidents. They told her it happened when they turned their heads around after discovering their kids had unbuckled themselves.
Trying to determine how frequently it happened, she and her colleagues from Yale surveyed 378 parents of young children. Among the other findings:
- 51% or about 191 families reported that at least one of their children had unbuckled their car seats. Of these, 75% were age 3 or younger. The youngest was 12 months old.
- Boys unbuckled more than girls; 59% of the kids who unbuckled were boys.
Parents were not asked if they were sure they had buckled correctly, Reyes tells WebMD. So there is a possibility the children weren't buckled in correctly. But parents do typically hear a click, like a seat safety belt, when the buckle latches, she says.
The problem, she says, is that while children may be able to physically unbuckle the seat, they are just beginning, at around age 3, to develop reasoning skills to appreciate the consequences of unbuckling.
Parents used seats of various types. They included the five-point harness, convertible seats, and booster seats, depending on their child's age and weight.
Are Car Seats Really Buckled?
''This study raises questions about how the child restraint was used," says Lorrie Walker, training manager and technical advisor for Safe Kids USA, an advocacy group.
"Federal motor vehicle safety standard 213 requires the buckle to release using between 9 and 14 pounds of pressure," she says. "It is often challenging for an adult to unbuckle the harness."
She wonders if the buckle was not adequately locked in some cases.
"A buckle may give the appearance of being buckled when it has not completely latched," she tells WebMD.
Among the mistakes many parents make when placing a child in a car seat she says, is to loosely attach the harness straps or place the straps in the wrong harness slots.
If these mistakes occur, she says, it makes it easy for a child to climb out.
The finding that a child as young as age 1 could unbuckle the seat is a surprise to Jennifer Stockburger, program manager of vehicle and child safety for Consumer Reports. She reviewed the findings for WebMD but was not involved in the study.
'It does not surprise me that an older child in a harness can unbuckle his own," she says.
She can't suggest one brand of car seat over another as safer as far as the buckle is concerned, she says. Consumer Union tests child car seats, bearing in mind the federal standards about the buckle release force. "We have never failed a seat due to buckle release force -- either too much or too little," Stockburger says.
In some cases, she, too, wonders if a child may be wiggling out of a loose harness without unbuckling.
Parents can be sure their child car seat is installed properly by having it checked by a certified child passenger safety technician (CPST). The web site of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) posts a list of inspection stations with these technicians. Visitors can search by ZIP code.
The site also has information on child car seat guidelines. These have recently been updated by NHTSA and the American American Academy of Pediatrics.
These findings are being presented at a medical conference. They should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.