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How to keep your kids safe in the car

Discover important strategies for safeguarding your most precious cargo.

Mother watching father securing daughter into car seat

Here’s a stat that will pull you up faster than a four-way stop: 53% of Canadian drivers admit that they use their cellphone while driving.

That means on any given road in Canada at any time, 1 in 2 of the drivers responsible for safely navigating 4,000 lbs of speeding metal might be texting, taking a call or glancing down at an email notification. Even more alarming? That number is actually up from 2018, when 38% of drivers shared they’d been distracted by their device – despite the fact that using your cellphone while driving comes with hefty penalties, including fines and demerits, in every province and territory.

These numbers, which were revealed by Desjardins’ 2020 Road Safety Survey, hammer home a sobering message: Despite all of the other things we’ve been doing to keep ourselves and families safe in 2020, Canadians still have work to do when it comes to one of the most everyday, basic activities of our lives. Case in point? According to the Desjardins survey, of all the people who admitted to ever driving high, 30 percent had done so within the last 12 months. That’s a buzzkill if ever we saw one.

The other thing about those stats, particularly the high prevalence of cell phone use, is that they reveal just how easy – and common – it is for well-meaning, otherwise responsible people to make some poor choices. After all, what parent amongst us hasn’t taken their eyes off the road to deal with a squabble in the backseat, or bent the speed limit to make it to hockey practice on time? If making good road safety decisions can be tricky when you’re a solo driver, it feels like it’s doubled (or tripled or quadrupled) by the number of delightful-but-distracting children you have in your car.

Desjardins, who compile this survey annually, do it because they believe that every fatality and injury on our roads is one too many – and that by learning about the weaknesses in our driving habits, we can be empowered to make better choices. Shocking as the results might be, they’re never meant to shame anyone – but encourage us all to work together to keep each other safe. (In fact, they’re so passionate about eradicating distracted driving that using a cellphone while driving is one of the factors their Ajusto app uses to determine a driving score.)

As the pace of life begins to pick up – you might be dropping little ones back at daycare for the first time in months, or ferrying older kids to play dates and activities – many families are spending more time in the car together than they have in a long time – which makes this message particularly timely, especially if you’re feeling a little out of practice. That’s why we’ve compiled some helpful strategies for making sure your car is as safe as it possibly can be – for you, your precious cargo and the communities we share the roads with.

#1 Set a good example

“Most parents have experienced how kids will do as we do, not as we say,” says Karen Bowman, director of the Drop It And Drive® program at the Traffic Injury Research Foundation. “So, it’s incredibly important parents always choose safe driving behaviours for kids to emulate.” That means things like wearing your seatbelt, not letting the dog climb on your lap, putting lipstick on in the rearview, and – this is a hard one, we know – not eating and driving, however tempting the siren call of the drive-thru. Not only is snacking at the wheel a form of distracted driving, eating in the car can actually be particularly dangerous for kid passengers, due to the risk of choking – and you not noticing because you’re driving. Try and make sure your kids eat before your drive but if hunger is unavoidable, try a safer snack like a fruit pouch.

#2 Make sure everyone is safely strapped in

As your children grow up, they’ll move from car seat to booster to wearing a seatbelt – and it can sometimes be tricky to know what is right for them when. “Knowing your child’s height and weight is important,” reminds Valerie Smith, director of programs at Parachute, a national charity that works to prevent serious injuries and deaths, including those on our roads. “It is height and weight, not age, that determines what kind of seat will best protect your child.” She also stresses the importance of reading both seat and car manual to ensure the seat is properly installed, and avoiding dressing kids in car seats in bulky clothing. “The thick material can prevent straps from sitting securely against your child’s chest, affecting the ability of the seat to protect them as intended in a crash,” she explains. Instead, dress them in lighter layers, and use a blanket over top to keep them warm. Oh, and while children under 13 should always sit in the backseat if at all possible, it is possible to turn off your front passenger air bag if that’s unavoidable for some reason. (Air bags, while a critical safety feature for adults, can seriously injure children.) Check your manual, or your dealership can help too.

#3 Help your kids help you

As the parent, there are all kinds of things to make sure you’re setting yourself up for a distraction-free environment: Turn off your phone’s notifications, for example, or put it in the glove box where you won’t be tempted to glance at it. You can also decrease the likelihood of your kids being a source of distraction by making sure they’re occupied – think playing fun songs or an audio book, or preparing activity packs filled with toys for them to play with on longer drives. (Pro tip: If you are playing the car’s audio, make sure it’s turned off when you’re backing up, even if you have a rear camera. Rolling the back windows down also makes sure you’re really alert to everything that’s happening as you back up.) But one of the most important things you can do to help your kids help you be a better driver? Involve them. “Don’t underestimate the positive role kids can play in ensuring a safe drive,” says TIRF’s Karen Bowman. “Parents can actively engage their kids by giving them responsibilities to handle the phone, select music, and if they’re old enough to sit in the front seat, they can manage other tasks like adjusting the temperature and helping with GPS navigation.” Take every opportunity you can to educate them about safe driving practices – and encourage them to hold you accountable to what you preach. After all, says Parachute’s Valerie Smith, “research also shows that when they are teens, your children tend to mimic both your safe and risk-taking behaviours.” And if we need any incentive, making sure the next generation of Canadians are safer drivers than this one is a pretty strong motivator, right?

Learn more about the results of Desjardins’ 2020 Road Safety Survey here.

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