Free child-safety seat inspections provide much-needed serviceHis wife had dozed off after delivery and their newborn baby girl was in the nursery at St. Peter’s University Hospital in New Brunswick, so Joe Delgado knew what he had to do.
“I promised my wife, the first chance I got, I would do it,” says Delgado as technicians work on the contraption on the back seat of his SUV. He wanted to get the baby-seat installed before the baby was born but Joe was a little busy — he just got back from Afghanistan where he serves with the U.S. Navy Reserve.
“I promised her it would be ready when the baby was ready to go home.”
So when baby Alaine arrived for the first time at her North Brunswick home, she road in a newly installed, certifiably safe baby seat, placed there courtesy of a program sponsored and funded by the state and federal government, free to all families.
“We really make a difference,” says Sgt. Michael Rein of the Rutgers University police. He supervises the department’s child seat inspection service in Piscataway. Some patrons come from as far away as Staten Island. One grandmother, Elizabeth Ganopolsky, had driven from Englewood to make sure her granddaughter, Sabrina, had a safe seat.
Rein’s office is one of a score of agencies — usually law enforcement or EMS — that offer the service in New Jersey through a program coordinated by the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration and paid for by the state highway safety division. A private, nonprofit group, “Safe Kids New Jersey,” also participates.
Most have very limited hours or offer appointments. The Rutgers service is there every Wednesday and Thursday — and the first Saturday of each month — no appointments necessary.
“We’ve had at least one person every session — except one,” says Rein, himself the father of a young son. That was in the middle of a blizzard. He explained he couldn’t “stand the idea” of someone traveling there and finding the place closed, so he showed up.
The service is called an inspection but it’s more. If the inspectors find a child seat unsuitable, they will provide a new one — free of charge — and install it.
“We’re not going to let anyone leave here with an unsafe baby seat,” Rein says.
Many poor families, he says, buy used baby seats at yard sales without knowing if they’re appropriate for their car or child. They often don’t get the manuals showing proper installation.
He says his statistics show a seat “misuse” rate of 90 percent — “And that’s not nitpicking.”
Either the seat has been installed improperly, it is the wrong seat for the car, it doesn’t meet safety standards — or it is too small for the child.
Some patrons of the Rutgers service buy a new car seat and head straight to the university where the technicians demonstrate how to install it.
“I don’t remember how many times I’ve been here,” says Regina Gomez of Somerset, a nurse-anesthetist who shows up with her two daughters, Sophia, 4, and Madelin, 2. This time she’s come with a new seat because her younger child has outgrown one of the old ones.
“But I come here a lot because my husband likes to tinker with the seats, making them tighter or looser or something. I come here because I want to make sure he did it right.”
Rein says the Rutgers department has seen nearly 20,000 families since the program began six years ago. He doesn’t have the statistics — numbers are difficult to come by for accidents that didn’t happen — but he is sure the service has saved lives.
“We get anecdotal information — people come back here and say they were in accidents and their children were unharmed because we made sure the seat was right,” he says.
Nationally, some 2,000 children die annually in car accidents, and 250,000 injured. It’s the leading cause of death among children 2 to 14. The safety administration’s statistics show about half of those deaths attributable to failure to restrain child passengers.
“It’s not something you take chances with,” says Valerie Anderson of Piscataway. She’s come to Rutgers with her 2-year-old grandson Paris for the installation of a new seat. “The service here is invaluable — and, imagine, it’s free. That’s hard to believe.”