While most adults with little people in their lives worry about stocking their 529 plans, some fears are more basic: What do I do about car seats? Or more specifically, how do I get an infant, a toddler and a school-age child secured in car seats in the back of my tiny Corolla and allow the children to breathe?
When Governor Kaine's car restraint bill passed this year (Code of Virginia 46.2-1095), I delighted in the extra measures Virginia would demand to keep its children secured in vehicles. Booster seats would be required until after those front permanent teeth replaced the baby teeth, until the age of 8. The majority of other states now allow the removal of booster seats at 4, 5, 6 and 7. Virginia practices tougher love, thank God.
But safety comes at a cost. The extra regulations were fine, until my family found out that "No.3 little person" was on his way. Remember there's a significant bump in the middle of most backseats. In my car, the middle seat (and it has to be a booster) cannot be secured without it swaying like the Titanic after the iceberg collision.
And to be fair, our oldest girl is about to turn that magic age in Virginia, the age when booster seats are for kindergarteners and first graders, the age when riding in a car doesn't mean dragging an appliance with her. She's elated. "I'll move into the front seat," she thinks.
The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act warns against placing a child in the front seat of a car until they are 4 feet, 9 inches tall, or 12 years old. She is tall for almost 8. If she stands very straight, she measures 4 feet, 2 inches.
Two inches more and she can ride gigantic roller coasters at Busch Gardens, but she needs 7 inches for car front-seat occupancy. Otherwise, instead of the sobriety test, we could be pulled over and a large tape measure applied to this child. Then she will be banished to the backseat to ride for years between the behemoth plastic seats of her sister and brother.
There's got to be a better plan. Admittedly my car is old. If we celebrated car birthdays, it would be almost a teenager, older than my arthritic cat. If I don't want to buy a bus, or a van, or an SUV, what choice is left?
So, I picked up the phone and called three area car dealers: Toyota, Chevrolet and Honda. My lead-in was simple. "How small a car can I buy and fit three young children in the back seat?" When they asked for an explanation, I gave it to them. Three children, two in large car seats for quite a few years, an older girl in the middle, maybe in a booster. What would they suggest I do?
One actually asked what I wanted in a car. "If I were honest -- a cheap, small hybrid, but now I just want a large backseat. And I'm willing to wait until I find the right car."
Immediately, all three sprang into action and spit out the 'V' word. "The van makes all the maneuvering in and out a lot easier," one stated. That sounded like army tactics. I told him I didn't like vans.
Chevy pushed an SUV, a Trailblazer, as "best bet" because of a third row bench seat. (Also, three Trailblazers were on the lot. And they offered a rebate on the 2007s.) Honda stuck with its Odyssey van, but mentioned the Pilot SUV with a third row. I asked Honda about the CRV, a small SUV, because I knew and liked the car. He admitted the back seat had gotten a little bigger "but not that big."
No one had a ready answer. Two left the phone -- one to consult with his manager, and one to check on a car to see if it had a third pair of "anchors" in the backseat. If you sold a line of cars, wouldn't you know how many people, or car seats, could fit into one of your cars?
Toyota suggested an alternative. They had a Scion XB -- "a toaster-in-a-box" look. The backseat was "like a limo's", its baseline cost the lowest of the cars offered. I made a mental note to see if it contained a limousine mini-bar as well.
I haven't made a choice. Good car seats are easy to obtain -- many are given away to deserving families when they leave the hospital. Others are bought at yard sales for several dollars, or in retail for more dollars. Knowing the requirements of the safer seats is the key to good shopping. Rightfully, adequate car seats are everywhere.
But then, so are non-versatile car back seats -- the majority angled down, seamed in the wrong places, with that telltale rise, or hard spot, in the very middle. What might just work is the old flat back seat, built at the right height with the strength of a firm mattress and the durability of cement -- and plenty of little anchors.
- Beth Morelli is a Richmond freelance writer.
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