A 15-minute checkup once a year can help parents avoid critical mistakes that threaten their child’s safety in a car seat, according to a new study.
Safe Kids WorldWide and the General Motors Foundation analyzed data from more than 100,000 car seat inspections and found that 73 percent are not installed properly.
Parents are making five “critical but fixable” mistakes when using car seats — selecting the wrong seat or failing to tighten the harness enough, for example — problems that an annual checkup can easily detect, advocates say.
The data came from inspections by certified technicians through Safe Kids’ Buckle Up Program, a national initiative established in 1997 and supported by General Motors to keep children and families safe in and around cars.
The findings showed that 98 percent of children were using some type of restraint, but the majority weren’t installed correctly.
Motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 13. Properly installed safety seats can reduce the risk of death by as much as 71 percent, according to Reagen Bradbury of the Safe Kids Champaign County Coalition.
To mark Child Passenger Safety Week (Sept. 16-22), Safe Kids and the General Motors Foundation are asking parents to take a 15-minute in-home car seat checkup, using this checklist:
- Right seat? Check the label on the car seat to make sure it’s appropriate for your child’s age, weight and height. Car seats also have expiration dates; make sure your’s isn’t too old.
- Right place? Keep all children in the back seat until they are 13 years old.
- Right direction? Keep your child in a rear-facing seat for as long as possible, usually until around age 2. If your child outgrows the seat, move him to a forward-facing seat, but make sure you attach the top tether after you tighten and lock the seat belt or lower anchors. Continue to use a booster seat until your child properly fits in the seat belt, usually between ages 8 and 12.
- Inch test. Once the seat is installed, give it a good shake at the base. Can you move it more than an inch side to side or front to back? If so, it’s not properly installed.
- Pinch test. Make sure the harness is tightly buckled and coming from the correct slots (check your car seat manual). With the chest clip placed at armpit level, pinch the strap at your child’s shoulder. If you are unable to pinch any excess webbing, you’re good to go.
Here's the full checklist: http://www.safekids.org/assets/docs/for-media/car-seat-checklist.pdf 
Safe Kids Champaign County will host a Seat Check from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, 201 W. Kenyon Road, C. Parents should bring their car, car seat and child, and a certified child passenger safety technician will provide hands-on help with installation.
Safe Kids Buckle Up events will continue throughout the year.
Julie Wurth is a family columnist/blogger and staff writer covering the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 217-351-5226, firstname.lastname@example.org  or Twitter.com/jawurth.
Photo: Reagen Bradbury, coordinator for Safe Kids Champaign County, shows Jaliyah Freeman, 3, of Champaign, how to install her booster seat during a 2010 car seat check at ProAmbulance in Champaign. Heather Coit/The News-Gazette