Whether you are traveling across town or across the country, you want to make sure your children are safe in the car.
It's a sad fact, but each year, thousands of children in the United States are injured or die in automobile crashes. That's why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all infants ride rear-facing in the back seat, starting with their first ride home from the hospital. Babies should remain rear-facing until they are at least 1 year old and weigh at least 20 pounds.
Toddlers and preschoolers should ride in forward-facing car seats. Booster seats are for school-age children who have outgrown their forward-facing safety seats. Children should stay in booster seats until adult seat belts fit correctly -- usually when they are 4 feet 9 inches tall and between 8 and 12 years old. And children should ride in lap and shoulder belts in the back seat until they are 13 years old.
Of course, a car seat is only safe if it is installed correctly. Also, you should avoid buying a used car seat at a garage sale or secondhand store. It's best to buy a new seat when you have a new baby. That way, you'll have instructions, the date it was manufactured and a model number.
If you need help installing your safety seat, you can find an inspection station locator by visiting the home page of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov) and clicking on the child passenger safety link.
Your concern for your child's safety shouldn't end when he or she becomes a teenager. In fact, many states have toughened up their laws for young drivers. In Illinois, for example, teens are required to have six hours of behind-the-wheel training with a certified instructor, as well as a minimum of 50 practice hours over a nine-month period, before they can obtain a driver's license.
"We want students to practice driving in a variety of weather, so having them drive with a learner's permit over a nine-month period helps," says Henry Haupt, deputy press secretary for the Illinois secretary of state's office. "We want to better prepare teen drivers to drive safely and responsibly."
Since Illinois has enacted new teen driving laws, the number of teen fatalities has dropped considerably. In 2007, 155 Illinois teens died in traffic accidents. In 2008, 93 teens were killed. "That's a 40 percent drop in teen fatalities," Haupt says, adding that other states have seen similar trends.
Like many states, Illinois also limits the number of teen passengers allowed in a car with a new driver. "A teen is only allowed one unrelated teen passenger at a time for the first year," Haupt says. "That is important because teens are particularly prone to distractions and peer pressure."
A recent Johns Hopkins University study shows that a teen driver's risk of death increases with each additional teen passenger. A 16-year-old with one passenger is 50 percent likelier to die in a crash. Having two passengers doubles the danger -- and three or more teen passengers more than triples the likelihood of a fatal accident.
No matter where you live, Haupt says, you need to monitor your child's driving and take action if you discover bad driving habits. "It is really important to identify potentially bad drivers right away," he says.
Instruct your teenager to stay off the phone and refrain from texting while he is in the car -- whether or not you reside in a state where it is illegal to use a cell phone while driving. Remind her that having a cell phone in the car is great for emergencies, but it shouldn't be used for idle chatter.
No matter what your child's age, always try to set a good example. Make sure you wear your seat belt; avoid distractions, such as eating, drinking or talking on your cell phone while driving; and drive within the speed limit. If you are a careful and considerate driver, chances are your child will follow your lead when it is his time to take to the road.