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Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Andrea Miller, director of the injury prevention program for the Utah County Health Department, shows Suzanne Trotter how to secure Trotter's son, Josef, before installing the new car seat in Trotter's car.

PROVO — Planning a getaway with the family during the holidays? If so, there's a better-than-good chance you didn't properly install your child's car seat.

The Utah County Health Department conducts monthly car-seat inspections, and information culled from those inspections is alarming, says Andrea Miller, director of the injury prevention program.

Some 3 percent of all inspected car seats are properly installed.

Rather than brood over the numbers, she asked, "What can we do to change that?"

For starters, Miller and Janene Wilkey, a county health educator, started a car-seat class to show moms and dads the do's and don'ts of proper installation.

Most problems stem from loose car seats or slack harnesses, Miller said. If properly cinched up, a car seat shouldn't move more than an inch from side to side. When fastening the child in, Miller added, parents should make sure no more than a finger width can fit between the child's harness and his or her collarbone. She also said the harness should be positioned at armpit level.

Some children aren't used to a snug, secure harness, and they might cry in protest. What's Miller and Wilkey's advice for parents? Let them. They'd rather see children blue in the face than exposed to potential harm in a serious accident.

"Be the parent," Wilkey said. "Don't let your child control you."

If parents use car seats consistently, their children will get used to it soon enough, Miller said.

Provo resident Suzanne Trotter said her 2-year-old son, Josef, has taken the lead, reminding his mom to buckle him in his seat. Last week, she was pulling out of a parking lot when he started screaming. She stopped the car, looked back and saw his harness unfastened.

"I thought, 'I'm such a horrible mother,"' she said.

There are other installation mistakes parents should beware of, Miller said. For instance, infant seats should recline at a 45-degree angle.

"If it's too high, their head can snap forward and cut off the infant's air flow," she said.

When in doubt, parents should consult and adhere to the recommendations in the owner's manual, Miller said. For instance, children younger than a year and lighter than 20 pounds should be kept in seats that face the rear of the car. Otherwise, "their whole body absorbs the shock of the crash" if you get in an accident, she said.

Also, children between 40 to 80 pounds and under 4 feet 9 inches should remain in a booster seat, Miller said, regardless of age.

"I have a 9 1/2-year-old brother-in-law who still sits in a booster seat," she said.

Check the expiration date on your car seat, Wilkey added. Unlike wine, car seats don't improve with age. At one inspection, Wilkey said she saw a woman present a police officer with a 10-year-old car seat — four years past its expiration date.

"Let me show you why it's expired," the officer said.

He threw the seat against the ground and it shattered like glass, Wilkey said.

Aside from the safety tips, any pointers for soothing youngsters on a long holiday road trip?

Trotter, who recently traded her old car seat for a new one, said her family sometimes travels to visit relatives in Kansas, which translates into nearly 20 hours of road time over two days. First, she said distractions help entertain Josef.

"His binky is a big help," she said.

Stuffed animals come in handy too, Trotter said. Also, dress children in comfortable clothes like sweats or pajamas. Take some time every few hours to let parents and children stretch limbs.

"On a 10-hour road trip, five minutes isn't going to make that big of a deal," Trotter said.

More information about car seats and Miller and Wilkey's installation class is available at www.co.utah.ut.us.

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