Justin McNaull is the father of a 10-month-old son and a public affairs specialist for AAA Mid-Atlantic region. Even with his background with AAA, his first child-safety seat was installed by a Fairfax County firefighter.
"In Fairfax County, there are ample resources to get this done, between the police, sheriff's office and the fire department," McNaull said. "The county is at the forefront [of child-safety seat inspections."
McNaull has since "graduated" from the county police's Child Passenger Safety (CPS) training program, a 40-hour class in which passing participants become certified CPS technicians, permitted to inspect and teach parents to properly install child-safety seats.
"Nationwide eight out of 10 child-safety seats are installed improperly. In this area, it's actually higher," said Master Police Officer Hank Hodges, with the Fairfax County Police, and lead instructor of the certification program. "Look at all the different types of seats, types of vehicles — all have different seating and cars and SUVs are made for adults."
THE CERTIFICATION PROGRAM offered at the county's Criminal Justice Academy is open to anyone and the most recent class, held Nov. 19-22, included police, sheriff, emergency medical technicians and fire department personnel from neighboring counties, military personnel from nearby Quantico Marine Base and even grandparents.
The certification program is not mandated, but the safety class is a standardized course created by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the one-year certifications are issued by AAA.
"It's like building blocks. We provide the foundation. We try to teach every seat available and give the basics,'" Hodges said.
While the public safety agencies undergo four days worth of training to properly install a child-safety seat, most parents simply take the seat out of the box, look at the pictures and install the seat in the family car, which is one of the biggest mistakes made when installing a child-safety seat.
"As Americans, we have a tendency to not read instructions and child-safety seats can come with instruction booklets of 30 to 40 pages," McNaull said. "There are multiple steps where a parents can go wrong — matching the seat to the car, matching the seat to the child. Checkpoints give parents an opportunity to have one-on-one discussions with someone trained to install the seats properly."
Hodges said the best seat is the one that fits the baby, fits the vehicle and is the easiest to use correctly each time. Most stores, in fact, will allow customers to test the seat in their car before purchasing it, said McNaull. Recently the automobile industry has been working on what is called the LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system, which is a more standardized restraint method and helps eliminate installation mistakes.
THE APPROPRIATE child-safety seat depends on the age and weight of the child and the size of the vehicle's back seat. However, there are some guidelines to help in making the proper selection. Infants and children up to 1 year old and at least 20 to 25 pounds should be in a rear-facing seat. Children 1 year old or older, weighing 20 to 40 pounds, should be in a convertible front-facing seat. And in Virginia, children under the age of 6 need to be in a booster seat. So it is possible a family will have to invest in more than one type of safety seat as the child grows.
Hodges said it is also important to check to see if the child-safety seat has been recalled and to never purchase a seat at a flea market or garage sale. He said by purchasing a used seat, the parents cannot be certain of the history of the child restraint. If the set has been involved in a crash, it may not provide the protection needed if involved in another crash.
In addition, parents should never purchase a seat without the labels still attached. The labels provide information such as the weight and age appropriateness and the identification numbers needed to check for recalls.
"How much is your child's safety worth?" Hodges said.
"THEY'RE TRYING to teach us to teach other people," said Charles Mills, a member of the Fairfax County Police's motor squad. "We have to know every seat and every car out there. I didn't even know the basics. I was surprised at all the different types of seats out there."
Mills will get plenty of practice installing and inspecting child-safety seats, he and his wife are expecting their first child.
"I thought it would be good to have mine installed correctly," he said.
"When I told my husband I was taking the class he asked why it took 40 hours," said Jamilah Suarez, a deputy with the Fairfax County Sheriff's Office. "There is so much to learn and to know about the child. Knowing what I now know, it doesn't surprise me that so many are installed improperly."
She said looking back, she knows she has seen dozens of child-safety seats that were installed improperly but didn't realize it.
"It is a little overwhelming and takes practice," Suarez said. "After 40 hours, I have way more than I expected to learn."