- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 31, 2007

Anyone who has sweated or sworn while struggling to install a child safety seat understands why Debbi Baer gets desperate phone calls.

She is one of roughly 30,000 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration-certified child passenger safety technicians. If you have a hard time believing you might need professional help to buckle a safety seat in a car, you’ve probably never installed one — at least not properly.

When the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration studied car-seat installation, in 2001, it found about 73 percent were being used incorrectly. A small cadre of trained seat-installation professionals — a group safety advocates say isn’t nearly large enough to meet the need — has grown as the result of word of mouth among parents. Most work for free; a few charge a nominal fee.

Working from her Pikesville, Md., driveway with a fanny pack of tape measurers, levels and tools and a closet full of towels she rolls up and wedges under seats to achieve the correct angle, Mrs. Baer, an intense, petite woman “gets in these car seats, she’s jumping up and down on them, she’s doing contortions,” said David Kramer, a Baltimore father of three and a repeat customer.

“What she does to get these seats tight. It’s almost comical,” he said.

Everyone in the industry agrees that it shouldn’t take a trained professional to install a safety seat. While manufacturers insist that each year’s model is easier to install than the last, the profusion of car and seat models and the variety of back-seat belting systems is enough to confuse a trained engineer.

NHTSA Administrator Nicole R. Nason, a mother of two, said in an interview that she and her husband struggled for hours to correctly install a car seat when her first daughter was born.

“It had a terrible slant to it, and we couldn’t get it to level,” Mrs. Nason said. “It drove us crazy.” Eventually, they bought a second seat.

Complicating matters is that almost nothing about car seats is standardized, and their fit is different from car to car.

“I do this every day of my life, and I can’t tell you how many combinations there are because, as we speak, there’s a new combination being born,” said Lorrie Walker, training manager and technical adviser of nonprofit Safe Kids USA (www.safekids.org).

Even seats with the same brand name can vary. There are two versions, for instance, of the Graco Children’s Products Inc. SnugRide, Mrs. Baer said. The more expensive version has a harness strap that’s very easy to use, but the one that’s $20 cheaper has a back closure that Mrs. Baer said she hates.

“Parents aren’t going to do it right,” she said.

Graco did not return a call requesting comment.

Infant products maker Evenflo Co. has about 30 seat technicians on staff and hosts regular seat checks. Safe Kids runs fitting stations where certified seat inspectors will check whether a car seat is installed correctly. The group has checked about 900,000 cars, Ms. Walker said.

Mrs. Baer, a labor and delivery nurse, and her daughter, a medical resident in Philadelphia, work by appointment, as does a friend of her daughter’s who lives in New York. They take appointments through their Web site, www.thecarseatlady.com.

Mrs. Baer said she gets about 50 to 60 calls a week and does about 30 to 40 installations.

Mrs. Baer charges $15 for each seat check but said she’ll waive her fee for someone who can’t afford it.

“I never turn anyone away,” she said. “This is not a moneymaking thing.”

New mom Jennifer Einhorn said she was walking down the street in the New York borough of Brooklyn, obsessing about a strap in her car seat, when she approached two couples with young children and asked about it. One of the men started explaining, then said: “Why don’t you ask the car seat lady?” and pulled her number off his cell phone. She recently passed it along to a woman she met in the car-seat section of a store.

“With new parents, people are trying to sell you wipe warmers, and all these kinds of things, that are completely unnecessary,” she said. A seat consultation, by contrast, is “not just safety, it’s peace of mind.”

While many parents assume any police officer or firefighter can fit a seat, the pros say that’s not the case. Instead, look for a certified fitter on Safe Kid’s Web site, or by calling 866/SEAT-CHECK or at www.seatcheck.org.

“People are looking for shortcuts; they want to make it quick. It isn’t quick,” Ms. Walker said.

At a recent seat check, Mrs. Baer helped Radiah Rhodes, who is nine months pregnant, properly fit a Britax Childcare Ltd. Companion model in her BMW X5.

Mrs. Rhodes’ husband, an engineer, had installed the seat.

“When I opened the car door, they laughed,” Mrs. Rhodes said.

Mrs. Rhodes, who is also an engineer, spent more than two hours at the seat check as a parade of technicians struggled with levels and bolsters to get the seat properly installed. Eventually, everyone agreed it wouldn’t fit in the car’s back middle seat, and it’s now locked tightly in a side seat. The car does not have side-curtain air bags, so a side installation is safe but not ideal, Mrs. Baer told her.

Mrs. Rhodes and her husband tried to return the seat but were told they couldn’t and finally decided, despite some “heartburn” that the installation was safe.

“Deborah, the car seat lady, is amazing,” Mrs. Rhodes said.

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