Last September, a six-year-old child was left unattended in a parked car outside a Saskatchewan strip mall. The vehicle was stolen with her inside, triggering a province-wide Amber alert. Though she was later found safe, the incident was a wake-up call for all parents.
Abductions like this are uncommon, but the incident shines a light on the potential dangers that arise when your family gets into a vehicle. “Driving is such a staple of our routine that it’s sometimes easy to forget the risks,” says Rick Lang of AMA Driver Education. “A lot can happen when a child is left alone—even for a few minutes.” And the risks grow once the vehicle hits the road: In 2016, 13 Albertans age 14 and under died in collisions; 1,056 more were injured.
But there’s a lot you can do to mitigate the danger. A good start: Ensuring your car is road-worthy and minimizing distractions while you drive. From there, Lang offers even more tips for family-vehicle safety.
Use safe and appropriately sized child restraints. A properly installed car seat or booster seat can decrease fatality risk by 71 percent. Yet according to a 2010 survey, only 64 percent of Canadian drivers use child restraints correctly. Laws vary by province, but it’s generally agreed that children should be secured in car seats or booster seats until they are 36 kg (80 lbs) and 145 cm (4’9”).
Remember too that car seats have expiry dates, and should be checked regularly for wear (and they should never be used if they’ve been in a collision). Look for the National Safety Mark, which means the seat has been certified for use in Canada.
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Keep pets secured, as they can be distracting—and therefore dangerous—to the driver. Pets should be placed in a crate that’s tethered to the floor. Alternatively, a vehicle harness can ensure dogs stay out of the front seat.
And never leave a child unattended. Depending on conditions, the temperature and carbon monoxide level within your vehicle can change quickly, causing injury or worse. And though it’s very rare for a child to be abducted from a vehicle, the risk is not zero. Take advantage of services like pay-at-the-pump so your child is never more than a few metres away.
Above all, don’t become complacent. “The leading factor in collisions is driver error,” Lang says, adding that while many people regularly invest time and money in career-related continuing education, few do the same for their driving skills. Even experienced drivers can benefit from occasional lessons that pinpoint areas for improvement, teach season-specific skills or tackle the rules of the road.
While we can never completely eliminate the risks associated with driving, we all have the power to take simple steps to protect our loved ones.
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USE WITH CAUTION
Keep your car safe to keep your kids safe
Drive a safe vehicle: Advanced features, like electronic stability control and automatic emergency braking, make newer vehicles safer than older ones.
Stay on top of maintenance: Ensure your regular oil change routine includes a 50- or 100-point inspection by a licensed technician.
Minimize distractions: Buckle unused seatbelts and child-lock power windows and doors to discourage kids from playing with them.
Lock it down: Loose, heavy items can become projectiles in an accident, so make sure they’re stored in the trunk whenever possible.