Child-Proofing Your Car

New technology is making its way into car seats and air bag systems to better
protect child riders.

Nothing is as important as keeping your loved ones safe while driving. But, all too often, the biggest concerns come with the smallest packages. Buckling babies, toddlers and small children into a car seat or booster seat and making sure they're fully protected at all times is difficult … and oftentimes confusing.

Child safety is no small issue. Approximately 33 children under the age of 10 die every week in motor vehicle crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). However, many of these deaths — and thousands of injuries — can be prevented through the use of effective safety devices, including better car seats, advanced air bag systems and new technology innovations.

Remarks National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Nicole R. Nason: "[It's essential] to keep children as safe as possible … and make the technology available to protect children in vehicles."

Seat Success

Although child seats have evolved over the years, using them correctly can prove elusive. NHTSA reports that more than three-quarters of individuals with child restraint systems (CRS) make critical errors in attaching harness straps and using the seats. Following instructions and taking time to understand how to use the system is vital. Yet, it's also important to adhere to basic safety guidelines, such as using booster seats for children less than 4' 9" tall.

In recent years, some manufacturers have introduced composite and aluminum frames to replace plastic parts; they've developed quick release systems that are easier to operate; and they have designed seats with materials that offer better padding and protection. Car seats and vehicles introduced after 2003 include a LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system that allows a motorist to install the child seat without seat belts. These systems typically connect directly to a base using anchors and specialized connectors.

Now car seats are poised for further advancements. Engineers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center have developed a car seat system that provides video monitoring from the front instrument panel; biometric displays for heart rate, perspiration rate and urinary status; and noise-cancelling audio systems to block ambient sound from reaching the baby. The car seat also includes a biotelemetric and GPS tracking subsystem that indicates the location of the seat and the baby's vital signs, even if the seat is removed from the car.

Another system, ChildMinder, uses a smart clip and key ring alarm unit to ensure that the caretaker and child remain within a safe distance. If a parent or nanny moves more than 10 feet away from the vehicle with the child in the car seat, an alarm sounds. This helps avoid heat related health problems and deaths.

The LATCH system is mandatory and built into all vehicles. The other improvements (better frames, padding and quick release systems) have been implemented on a vendor by vendor basis.

Airbags Advance

Innovation also centers on airbags. Today's frontal air bag systems differ radically from older systems. Beginning with the 2006 model year, all passenger cars and light-duty trucks come with sensors that detect children by weight and deploy the front-seat air bag with diminished force or not at all (first generation airbags can injure or kill children). These systems are necessary because many caretakers do not obey state laws or follow safety standards prescribed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Children under age 13 shouldn't sit in the front seat.

Jaguar's Adaptive Restraint Technology System (ARTS) uses ultrasonic sensors to detect when occupants aren't seated normally (such as feet on the dashboard). It reduces the force or suppress the airbag altogether. Sensors analyze the passenger's weight, the position of the driver in relation to the steering wheel, the usage of seat belts and, in the event of a crash, the severity of the impact.

Meanwhile, other automakers, including GM and Ford, are introducing dual-depth systems that use multiple sensors to judge a person's weight. They are particularly effective for teens who, in terms of weight and safety considerations, fall somewhere between adults and children. These front airbags, which exceed federal safety standards, offer a more targeted deployment — often using less force and covering a smaller area. Ford's system classifies passengers into five weight categories and adjusts the system accordingly.

In the future, airbag systems will become even more sophisticated — sensing when a passenger is bending during a collision or if she's twisting sideways at the moment of impact.

Make no mistake, child safety is going high tech. In the months and years ahead, innovations in car seats and air bags will make driving easier … and, more importantly, save lives.

Bio: Samuel Greengard is a veteran technology journalist based in West Linn, Ore. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including Discover, Wired, American Way, Hemispheres, Acura Style, Ford Times, and the AAA publications Journey and Westways. [Source]


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