Keep kids safe in and around cars
Jamie Page Deaton for U.S. News and World Report

Keeping kids safe in cars seems easy. Buy a car with strong crash test scores and accident avoidance technology. Put the kids in the back seat, use age-appropriate car seats and always make sure they buckle up. Follow those rules and your kids will always be safe, right?

[See the Best Cars for Families]

A safe car, buckling up and car seats can certainly keep kids safe in car crashes, but the threat cars can pose to children’s health and safety doesn’t stop when you turn the car off. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 30,000 children age 14 and younger were injured in non-traffic incidents involving cars between 2008 and 2011. During that same period, more than 800 children 4 and younger were killed in non-traffic motor vehicle accidents. Non-traffic incidents are events that take place off public roadways, in driveways, parking lots and garages. The most common non-traffic incidents that injure or kill kids are backover accidents, frontover accidents and heat stroke.

“The worst thing that can happen is the death of a child,” says Janette Fennell, founder and president of Kids and Cars, a nonprofit dedicated to keeping kids safe in and around motor vehicles. “It just doesn’t get any worse than that. And children die for many different reasons. Now take that and look at our data [which tracks non-traffic fatalities and injuries to children], where 70 percent of the time the person responsible for killing that child is a direct family member. The people who love them the most are now responsible for their death.”

While Fennell is quick to point out that these types of accidents can happen to anyone – after all, we’ve all backed hurriedly out of a driveway – there are a number of steps parents can take to keep their kids safe in cars, even when they aren’t on the road.

Home Doesn’t Mean Home-Free

“We let our guard down” when we’re at home, says Fennell. “Parents need to understand that things happen other than on public roads.” People feel safe at home, but a car can be an irresistible lure to a child. Even in a driveway or garage, a car has the potential to injure or kill a child. “In most cases, the incidents that we track are happening at people’s homes,” says Fennell.

Just like you wouldn’t let your child play unattended with a knife or gun, never let your child play unattended in or around a car. “There should be no interaction between a child and a vehicle unless there is an adult there,” says Fennell. Just being aware that cars are dangerous to kids even when they’re not on the road can go a long way toward keeping your child safe.

[Safest Cars for Teens]

Lock it Up

An important first step in keeping kids safe is to always lock your car, even if it’s in your garage, and make sure your child can’t get the keys. “It seems so simple,” says Fennell, “but if it were so simple, a lot of these things wouldn’t happen.”

Almost any parent will tell you that kids are attracted to cars. “Think about it: these kids have been locked into car seats, and they are watching you push the buttons and use the wheel. They want to do it too. Can you imagine how enticing that must be to a child?” Fennell says. Parents often encourage this attraction, buying kids toy steering wheels and cars, or letting kids pretend to drive when the car is parked. But, kids don’t understand that cars aren’t toys, and they can’t resist playing with them.

“Locking your car is such an easy way to make sure kids can’t get in and get hurt,” says Fennell. That helps lower their risk of getting trapped in the car and overheating, accidentally putting the car into gear or getting caught in power windows or doors.

Look Before You Leave

In 2013, 44 children died after being left in hot cars, according to Kids and Cars. While it’s easy to blame parents in these cases, Fennell says it’s not that simple. “Our brain is like an organ,” she says. “It can fail us. … Thinking that this can’t happen to you is like telling your liver not to get cancer, and about as effective.”

With every heat wave, we’re reminded not to leave children and pets in hot cars, but every summer there are horrific stories of caregivers doing just that. “If you think that this can’t happen to you, you’re fooling yourself,” says Fennell. “This happens to the best of parents. I’m talking ministers, dentists, doctors, lawyers. The pillars of our society. It’s not a lack of love, it’s that our memories let us down.”

Kids and Cars gives three ways parents can avoid forgetting their children in the car. The first is to look before you lock. Before locking your car, check all the seating positions and make sure no one is in there. Don’t check from the driver’s seat, where it can be hard to see into rear-facing car seats or into a van or SUV’s third row. Get out of the car and look through the windows. Kids and Cars also recommends the teddy bear defense. Place a large stuffed animal in your child’s car seat. When you put your child in the car seat, put the stuffed animal in the passenger seat. After you remove the child from the car seat, put the toy back. The stuffed animal acts as a reminder: If it’s in the front seat, your child is in the car. Finally, having someone hold you accountable can save lives. Many children who are left in hot cars were supposed to be dropped off at day care, but their parents forgot and left the child in the car while they went to work. Have an iron-clad agreement with your day care provider to call if your child isn’t dropped off by a certain time. Getting that call can mean getting to your child before it’s too late.

Focus on Features

“We’re not going to reengineer kids,” says Fennell. “But we can reengineer the products they interact with to make them safer.” Parents know to look for cars with excellent crash test scores and features that help avoid traffic accidents, but Fennell recommends looking at other features to keep kids safe in non-traffic situations. “Rearview cameras and front and rear park assist systems are must-have features,” she says. Front- and backover accidents are currently the leading cause of non-traffic deaths for children. “People do not appreciate the lack of visibility in their cars,” Fennell says. The smallest children are the most vulnerable: 1- and 2-year-olds are the most likely to be hurt in this type of case. Many new cars have standard rearview cameras (they’ll be required on all new cars in 2018), and almost all new cars offer them as optional features. Aftermarket rearview cameras are also available and most cost less than $100.

Parents should also look for auto reverse on all power windows and doors. Cars have locks that can prevent a child from operating a power window, but children may put their hands out while the driver is putting the window up. Auto reverse stops and retracts the window, lessening the possible injury. Also look for cars with a transmission shift interlock. That mechanism makes it impossible to put a car into gear without having a foot on the brake, something that’s tough for small kids to do. Finally, Fennell recommends cars with a rear-seat seat belt reminder that chimes when rear passengers aren’t buckled in. Squirmy kids can undo their seat belts, and without a reminder chime or indicator light, a parent would never know. “Seat belt minders for the rear seat also continue the myth that mom has eyes in the back of her head,” says Fennell.