7 need-to-know car safety facts

How to keep your most precious passengers safe on the road

Did you know that about 2,500 Canadian children between the ages of one and four are injured or killed in car crashes each year? In fact, car accidents are the leading cause of death for kids, according to the Canadian Paediatric Society. The good news: By taking a few basic precautions (and honing your own good driving habits, of course!), you can protect your most precious passengers.

1. Bigger vehicles aren’t always safer

Generally, “the more metal surrounding you the better” when it comes to surviving an accident, says Russ Rader, spokesperson for the US Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a car-safety-rating organization. But there is one notable exception to the rule. Older-model SUVs are at risk of rolling over during a fast turn or swerve because they have a higher centre of gravity than cars, making them more tippy.

Safety tips:
• Almost all SUVs produced in the last few years have “electronic stability control,” a technology designed to keep the car from flipping. Be sure to ask about this feature before buying.
• If you drive an older-model SUV, avoid speeding and sudden turns or swerves, and don’t overload your vehicle, which makes it more prone to rolling over.
• Check out iihs.org for the list of 2010’s top vehicles for safety.

2. Car junk can become projectiles

In the event of a sudden stop or collision, that board book, laptop or sippy cup is apt to fly through the air, potentially striking and injuring your child.

Safety tip:
• “Anything hard poses more of a threat,” says Kristen Gane, head of programming for the injury prevention organization Safe Kids Canada. Reserve soft toys and books for the car and stow bags and other large items under the seat or in the trunk.

3. It’s good to be the monkey in the middle

The safest spot in the car is the middle seat in the back, says Gane.

Safety tip:
• As your family grows, Safe Kids Canada suggests putting the smallest child in the middle back and bigger kids on either side, also in the back.

4. Airbags do more harm than good when it comes to little ones

Airbags can save adults and older children from serious injury during an accident, but they can injure or kill babies and toddlers when they deploy. It is absolutely essential that front-seat airbags are deactivated if children under 13 are riding in the front passenger seat.

Safety tip:
• You’re better off putting kids in the back seat, says Gane. But if you have three children or you’re accommodating other kids and you can’t fit everyone in the back, put the most physically mature child in the front seat and deactivate the airbag. “Then slide the seat back as far as it will go, without impeding the car seat behind, so the child won’t hit the dashboard if there’s a sudden stop.”

5. Kids are as distracting as cellphones

“Mommmm, she took my Batman!” Those blood-curdling screams from the back seat can make it hard to focus on driving. But you can’t very well ban kids from cars. Instead, suggests Nicolas Jimenez, director of road safety for the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC), be conscious of the need to drive defensively.

Safety tips:
• Build in some reaction time. Tailgating is a leading cause of crashes — if your eyes stray from the road for a second, you can slam into the car ahead. ICBC recommends allowing at least two seconds between your car and the vehicle in front in good weather, and at least three seconds on highways or in bad weather.
• Slow down. When you double your speed, your braking distance is multiplied by four. Consider that, at 90 kilometres per hour, you need at least 20 car lengths to stop. Jimenez advises driving slower than the posted limit at high speeds or in icy, snowy or rainy conditions.
• Pull over. Need to wipe up a spill, break up a fight or pick up a fallen toy? Drive over to the shoulder.

6. All-weather tires are a compromise

“Snow tires increase traction by about 50 percent,” says Jimenez.

Safety tips:
• If you want the safest tires in both rain and snow, Jimenez advises, look for the mountain and snowflake symbol that indicates the tire is made for winter weather.
• No gold, no go. To ensure your winter tires have enough grip for safety, insert an upright toonie into the tread. If the tread isn’t deep enough to reach the gold part of the toonie, your tires are too worn.

7. Cars don’t have to be moving to be lethal

On a sunny day in Canada, the temperature inside a parked car can rise above 50°C (122°F) within 10 to 20 minutes. In less than 40 minutes, the heat could kill a child. Opening the window slightly does not keep the temperature at a safe level. Children may also manage to set the car in motion, strangle themselves in the automatic windows, or trap themselves inside the trunk.

Safety tips:
• Never leave a child unattended in a car.
• Check the temperature of the car-seat surface and its buckles before your kids climb in. Skin that touches surfaces over 66°C (150°F) can be severely burned in one second.

The not-so-common-sense car seat

Car seat use may not seem like rocket science, but getting it right is difficult enough that up to 90 percent of car seats are not installed or used correctly, according to Gane. And yet, an estimated 75 percent of crash-related deaths could be prevented by the proper use of car seats. Before you even think about installation, sit down with the manuals for both your car seat and vehicle. Says Gane, “You can answer a lot of your questions that way.” Still not sure? St. John Ambulance offers car seat clinics and training courses in some regions of the country.

If that’s a no-go, check with your local public health unit, police department or fire station; if they don’t provide clinics, they usually know who does.

Be sure you’ve got:
• a seat that fits properly in your car
• the right type of seat and positioning (front- or rear-facing) for your child
• proper anchorage and installation
• properly fitted straps and clothing that permits a snug fit

DIY emergency kit

When it comes to dealing with an emergency, adopt the Boy Scout motto and “be prepared.” Jeff Walker, vice-president of public affairs for the Canadian Automobile Association suggests checking fluid levels and tire pressure, as well as planning your route before a road trip. In addition, he advises, all vehicles should be stocked with the following:

• flashlight
• first-aid kit (bandages, antihistamine, painkillers, etc.)
• emergency food and water (cereal bars can last for months)
• warning light or road flares
• booster cables
• bungee cord (to keep trunk from flying up when overloaded)
• safety vest (if you have to get out of the car on the highway)
• road maps (or GPS) in case of a sudden detour
• matches and a candle in a deep can (to warm hands, heat a bottle or use as an emergency light)
• windshield washer fluid and motor oil
• sand, salt or kitty litter to use as traction in slippery or snowy conditions
• extra clothing and footwear
• functional spare tire
• winter supplies (ice scraper and brush, antifreeze, etc.)

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