Buckle up. For Anapurna Ananth, that simple instruction is wound around one scary night. Last July, Ananth was driving home from her parents’ with her two-year-old daughter Akanksha. Like most children who hate the restrictions of a seat belt, the restless little girl had unfastened her harness. As Ananth tried to control her fidgeting daughter and manoeuvre a U-turn, an approaching truck flashed its headlights, blinding her and causing her to hit a road divider. In a flash, her Hyundai Santro overturned, its windows shattered, and broken glass pierced Akanksha’s hand. “I was wearing a seat belt on the day of the accident and there wasn’t even a scratch on me. For children, a child seat makes much more sense; but they have to get used to it from the beginning,” Ananth, 32, says.
Annual passenger car sales have tripled over the last decade in India, according to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers. Still, the use of the life-saving child car seat is often laughed at as being an unnecessary accessory.
“We always feel we are immortal,” says M.K. Subramanian, secretary of the Automobile Association of South India, an organization which offers services such as defensive driving classes to members in southern India. “To educate the educated is the most difficult thing,” he says.
Most Indian parents are reluctant to spend anywhere between Rs3,000 and Rs12,000 on a car seat that their child will outgrow. Then there are others who don’t see the need to use one for their child on roads where the traffic moves bumper to bumper.
Accidents can occur any time. Even in a minor crash, an unrestrained child can be thrown about inside a vehicle, injuring her/him and others, according to www.childcarseats.org—a UK-based website which offers information on Britain’s new law. The law requires all children travelling in cars to use an appropriate child restraint and fines offenders.
While regular seat belts are designed to fit and protect adults, they pose a significant risk of head injuries to children, according to a US study by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. On the other hand, a child car seat, always attached to the rear seat only with the help of a seat belt, helps to snugly harness and restrain a child during a crash.
“Indian consumers are ignorant about the safety features of a car seat,” said Rajiv Nair, business head, Mothercare, a UK brand available at Shopper’s Stop. “Moreover, unless compelled, safety is not a naturally important priority,” he says.
At Mothercare’s Chennai store, customers walk around looking at toys, clothes, cribs and cradles. Yet, the car seat attracts little interest and isn’t a compulsory purchase for even Mothercare’s globetrotting customers, says store manager Shubashree Chowdhury.
There are some points to consider when buying a car seat, according to The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Highway Safety Research Center: The seat must be the right size for the child, should fit into the vehicle in the safest seating position on the rear seat, be installed and locked correctly, and should have an adjustable harness. It should also be comfortable. And parents need to have the patience to see through their child’s initial resistance to a car seat.
Car seats apart, even basic safety measures, such as seating children only in the rear seat, are rarely followed in India. Even when in the rear seat, parents perceive the baby being safer in someone’s lap rather than in a car seat. But things are changing, albeit slowly.
Sixty-two-year-old Indirani Nalliah of Chennai became a great-grandmother recently. Instead of presenting the customary gold bangles or silver anklets, she bought her first great-grandchild a car seat for Rs4,000. Nalliah says her granddaughter convinced her, saying it was not only safe but also convenient to use a car seat. “I wouldn’t have thought of it as a present myself, but my granddaughter wanted it, so I bought it,” she says.
According to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, child safety seats are 71% effective in reducing fatalities among children under one and 54% effective for toddlers aged one to four in passenger cars.
“The onus is on the car users. Parents should take care of their children,” says Rajiv Mitra, spokesman for Hyundai Motor India—a unit of South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Co. and India’s No. 2 carmaker. “We can try to educate customers informally and indirectly, but we cannot force them to buy a car seat.”
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