Winter poses plenty of dangers on the road. From skidding on black ice to getting stuck in the snow, it's a season that challenges even the most careful drivers.
Here's one you might not have thought of. We certainly hadn't until we saw a Today Show report on it: Those big, puffy winter coats can keep seat belts from being snug enough to give protection in a crash. The problem is of most concern for the littlest passengers. Children strapped in to seat belts or child seats with winter coats on can fly out of their restraints in a crash. That's because the coat may prevent you, the parent, from properly tightening the belts.
"I make this mistake every winter," Rossen admitted in his report.
Video shows crash dummy nearly ejected from car seat
Take a look at video filed by Jeff Rossen, national investigative correspondent for the popular morning show, that shows what can happen to a crash-test dummy of a baby in a puffy coat and car seat in a 30 mph collision. The mannequin shoots out of its straps in a horrifying display of what could happen to a child.
The webbing-pinch test
If you'd like to see for yourself how loose a puffy coat can make a child's retraints, do this simple test on the next cold day. Put your child in his or her puffy jacket and strap them in to their car seat. Tighten the straps like you usually would. Now release the straps, take the child out and the coat off. Set the child back in the seat and see for yourself how loose the extra padding makes the straps.
An expert with kidsandcars.org demonstrated the proper tightness for the belts.
"You shouldn't be able to pinch the webbing up at the shoulder," Sue Auriemma told Rossen.
"As many as three out of four car seats are installed improperly."
Keep a blanket in the car
Fine and well, you might say. My child will be safer in an accident with his coat off. But what if he freezes without that coat? The solution is simple, Auriemma said. Just tuck the coat around your child outside the cinched seat belts. You may also keep a blanket in the car for this reason. Or better yet, bring a warm one in from the house! You can also have the child already in thin, heat-containing layers before that big coat goes on.
Of course, it's easier to type those words than take a warm coat off your child just as you put her in a car that hasn't warmed up yet on a cold January morning. Just consider the brief discomfort an investment in the safety of your child should you meet with an accident on the road.
Most car seats are not put in right
Speaking of car seats, that puffy coat isn't the only barrier to them functioning right. Sadly, as many as three out of four car seats are installed improperly, according to federal statistics. Many public service agencies like your fire department offer a free service of showing you how to put a car seat in correctly. Just stop by your local station house and ask. If they don't have such a program, the firefighters will know where to point you.
Don't forget your own safety
And while it's clear to see the benefits of keeping children strapped in tightly, don't lose sight of the fact that puffy coats may also interfere with seat belt operation for adults. Consider letting Daddy enjoy the brisk air while junior gets Dad's warm, giant coat draped across him.