It’s that time of year when car-pools assignments are being scheduled, and parents or caregivers who drive their child to school are determining the best route to take.

Of course kids have been transported by car here and there all summer long, but now the school-year routine is about to start up and that’s a ride in the car at least 5 days a week.

A new study looks at how parents and caregivers are doing when it comes to making sure their child is properly restrained while riding in a car. The results were that many parents still don’t use car seats the right way and are not aware what the guidelines are for car safety restraints.

The American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) updated their child passenger safety guidelines in 2011.

Here are their recommendations:

- Rear-facing car seats for kids until at least age 2, or when the child exceeds the maximum height and weight recommended by the car seat manufacturer

- Forward-facing car seats with a five-point harness for kids over 2, until the child reaches the seat’s maximum weight and height

- Booster seats until an adult seat belt fits properly, typically when the child reaches 57 inches in height (4 ft., 9 in.), between 8 and 12 years of age

- Back seat riding with seat belt until age 13

In the new study researchers reviewed 3 years of data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 2007-2009 National Survey on the Use of Booster Seats. Booster seats are typically recommended for kids who are 4 to 8 years old or who weigh at least 40 pounds and are up to 4 feet 9 inches tall. The data included nearly 21,500 kids who were observed in their parents’ vehicles as they pulled into gas stations, fast food restaurants, recreation centers and child care centers. Drivers were asked about their child’s age, race and ethnicity. The type of car safety restraints were noted as well as where the child was sitting, whether the driver was wearing a seat belt, what kind of car was being used and the gender of both the child passenger and driver.

The data was gathered before the release of the updated guidelines, but similar guidelines were already in place. Researchers found that few parents were using the child car restraints properly.

For example, only 3% of infants and toddlers aged 1-3 sat in rear-facing car seats, and only 2% of kids older than 7 remained in booster seats. The researchers found also that older children were more likely to ride without restraint entirely, and were likely to sit in the front seat. The authors speculate that older kids were wiggling out of their seat belts on their own or refusing to wear them because they’re uncomfortable — a problem that could be remedied by using a size- and age-appropriate booster seat.

When drivers were not wearing a seat belt themselves, the odds were 23 times greater that their kids were not buckled in as well.

In almost every age group, data showed that minority children were significantly less likely to use appropriate car safety restraints. Black and Hispanic infants and toddlers were 10 times more likely to be unrestrained in a car, compared with white babies, for example. Thirty-five percent of black children and 26 percent of Hispanic children ages 4 and 5 were prematurely transitioned to seat belts, compared with 16 percent of white children. But overall, many kids over age 6 were sitting in the front seat.

The authors believe their findings should be a call to action for better community-based education campaigns explaining car safety for kids and child safety seat laws.  Study author, Michelle Macy Mott M.D., of Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan said in a statement that this should be a wake up call to all parents; regardless of race or ethnicity. “The most important finding from this study is that, while age and racial disparities exist, overall few children are using the restraints recommended for their age group, and many children over 5 are sitting in the front seat.”

Why are car safety restraints so important for children passengers?  Motor vehicle injuries are the leading cause of death among children in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during 2009, 1,314 children fourteen and younger died as occupants in motor vehicle crashes and approximately 179,000 were injured. One CDC study found that, in one year, more than 618,000 children ages 0-12 rode in vehicles without the use of a child safety seat or booster seat or a seat belt at least some of the time.

It seems there’s traffic congestion or construction just about everywhere you go. Speed limits are up in many areas and people are driving distracted by talking on the phone and texting. Red light running has increased and many people fail to stop at stop signs.

As the new school year starts, be more aware of the traffic around you. Whether you’re running a short errand, dropping your kids off or picking them up from school or venturing out on any other activity, spend a few minutes extra making sure that your child is secured safely in the car. You’ll be glad you did.