Saturday, February 25, 2012

Thank God for infant seats!


Annabelle's self-portrait in her car seat,
courtesy of the iPad2.
I've recently been followed (on Twitter) by a group known as @ChildSeatSafety. Reading through their stream has reminded how far we have come in developing systems for keeping young children safer in vehicles.

I thought I would share two stories from my own personal experience that will demonstrate the risks of traveling with children ... even when they are buckled into carseats.

In January 1984 I was driving on a city street in Upland, California on a cool, rainy night. When Darlene and I married we inherited a beautiful 1967 Ford Mustang from her mother, and it had taken me several years to get it "cherried out" just the way I wanted it ... chrome rims, etc. It was cream white, in mint condition -- a beautiful car.

My son Nathan, who had just turned 1 about 10 days earlier, was buckled into his car seat. The seat was rated for infants through 1 year old, so I knew it was about time to get a new seat, but I did figure there was some wiggle room there as he was of average weight.

Back in 1984 there wasn't near as much research about the use of car seats, and we did not have air bags, so there was no reason known at the time he shouldn't be buckled in the way I had him secured ... in the front passenger seat, facing forward. (Knowing what I know now, of course, I would have secured him in the back, facing backwards, instead.)

As I cruised along, doing about 35 in a 35 zone, not in a hurry, I remember thinking, "Wow, I really like this car! It's sweet." Presently I approached a blind intersection. The light had been green, my way, for the last 10 seconds or so. As I entered, I slowed to about 20 since there was a fairly serious dip on the way in. Doing so probably saved my life, and possibly Nathan's.

Out of the corner of my left eye, as I slowed to take the dip, I saw headlights toward me (against the red light) -- straight into my path. Reflexively, I applied the brakes with all my might, but hydroplaned toward disaster. I knew it would be bad.

All the things they say about time slowing to a crawl at such a time as this, I experienced as reality. In one sense my life flashed before my eyes. I had so many thoughts that turned over about my life. But mostly, I had a great concern for the safety of my son. Therefore, at the very moment of impact, I had turned my vision away from the rapidly approaching headlines, and was actually looking directly (and helplessly) at Nathan.

What I saw is forever etched into my memory. As we were struck, and my head jerked back toward the driver's side window (where it smacked so hard an instant later that I saw stars), I saw Nathan thrown against the restraints of his car seat ... and then break through them. His small body sailed upward and forward, head-first, and his tiny body pummeled hard into that awkward, narrow space where the glass of the front window meets the dash.

As my head struck the glass and stars exploded in my field of vision, the noise was immense. The world spun -- or rather we spun within it, about three times until we came rocking to rest in the middle of that intersection, amidst screeching tires and blaring horns. As I gasped for breath, realizing I was alive, it then became eerily silent.

Nathan was stuck fast between the dash and the window glass, fortunately still intact. I could not see his face, but he wasn't moving at all. For a moment I hesitated, unsure of what to do. I thought about how you should not move an injured person. Then I shakily unbuckled my seatbelt and leaned toward him.

Suddenly and startlingly, Nathan turned his head so that he faced toward me, and began laughing. In that silly, one-year-old voice, he exclaimed, "Big bang! Again!"

(Nathan has always had a great vocabulary -- even at that early age.)

Flooded with an immense relief, I too began laughing uncontrollably, and gently picked him up and held him in my arms. A witness to the accident (who had been traveling opposite my direction and narrowly missed the Cadillac which struck us just over the front wheel on the driver's side) came running breathlessly to my door and opened it, exclaiming, "Oh my God! That was amazing! Are you okay?" I think he was very perplexed by why I was there laughing, cradling my one-year-old gingerly in my arms.

We were both taken to the hospital (where my wife worked) and checked out. Other than a headache and a welt for me, we were unscathed. Everyone was astonished that Nathan actually ended up without a scratch or a bruise, despite being thrown completely clear of his car seat. "It must have provided just enough stopping power to keep him from serious injury," the doctors marveled.

Looking at my nearly-totalled car later, I was also amazed at our "good fortune." The engine compartment was seriously caved in over the left front wheel. Had the driver's door taken the impact, I'm not sure how I would have fared. No doubt I would have been seriously injured, at best. (No side impact air bags on those old 1967 Mustangs!)

The woman who struck us was dazed and somewhat apologetic. The police officer asked her what she had been taking. "Cold medication," was the answer. Whatever it was, she had been too out of it to see the light which had been red in her direction for quite awhile.

A number of years later I stopped at the scene of a similar accident. A woman, driving, had t-boned a van at an intersection, right in front of me. Her one-year-old son was strapped in a car seat (facing forward) in the back seat. He wouldn't stop crying, and later we found out he had broken his femur.

I once read that one of the primary causes of infant deaths in the U.S., prior to infant seats, used to be accidents which occured when small children were traveling home from the hospital where they were born.

As I now have a one-year-old granddaughter, I am very thankful for the high-tech infant seats which are designed to keep our kids safe. I encourage everyone to use them in accordance with the manufacturer's specifications ... and don't fudge on the age/weight limits, even by a day!

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