Are you Making the Right Choice?

By Stephanie Shaw

Did you know that motor vehicle-related deaths are a leading cause of unintentional death for children in the United States?

Did you know that in 2015, nearly 500 children under age 7—many of whom were unrestrained—were killed in motor vehicle crashes?

Did you know that children are safest when using a child safety seat or booster seat, but nearly half of child car seats and booster seats are used incorrectly?

For parents, these statistics might be terrifying and overwhelming. As a parent and volunteer child passenger safety technician, I take comfort in knowing that the best way to protect my own children is to properly use age-appropriate child car seats and booster seats. But with so many messages out there and so many options for child car seats and booster seats, how does the average parent choose the right one?

Today, I want to share the answers to some of the questions I’ve gotten from parents and caregivers regarding car seats and booster seats.

Q. Which child car seat is the safest?

A. All child car seats must meet the same federal safety standards, but car seat designs vary. That’s why it’s critical to look for a seat that’s recommended for your child’s height and weight.

Q. So, I just need to buy the right car seat?

A. Not so fast. Buying the right seat for your child is the first step, but it still falls on the adult to install and use the car seat properly every time.

Q. How do I install and use a child car seat?

A. Read carefully and follow the instructions that came with your car seat, and also consult your vehicle owner’s manual; both provide steps for how and where to install the seat in your vehicle. All children should ride properly secured in a car seat or booster seat in the back seat. If you would like help installing your seat, visit Safe Kids Worldwide to locate a child passenger safety technician in your area.

Q. When do you change from rear-facing to forward-facing seats?

A. Children under the age of 2 are best protected when they are in a rear-facing car seat in the back seat, as their spine and neck are not developed enough to support their head in the event of a crash. It’s recommended that even children older than age 2 remain rear facing until they outgrow the rear-facing height or weight limit for their seat. When children outgrow a rear-facing car seat, they should use a forward-facing car seat with an internal harness and tether.

Q. When is my child ready to ride like an adult passenger?

A. Children aren’t ready to ride like adult passengers until the adult seat belt fits them properly; usually when they are 4’9” tall. Until then, they should use a booster seat. Booster seats help children fit in an adult seat belt. Children seated in a booster seat in the back seat of the car are 45 percent less likely to be injured in a crash than children using a seat belt alone. But don’t be in a rush to move your child into a booster seat or seat belt! Children are best protected when using a car seat with an internal harness.

Q. How can you tell when an adult seat belt fits a child properly?

A. A seat belt fits properly when the lap belt lies snugly across the user’s upper thighs, not the stomach. The shoulder belt should lie snugly across the user’s shoulder and chest without crossing the neck or face.

Q. When is my child old enough to sit up front with me?

A. Until your child properly fits an adult seat belt, he or she should always ride in the back seat, and should always use the right-sized child car seat or booster seat. Different-sized children need to be protected differently (read on!).

Q. What are common mistakes to look out for when using a car seat?

A. Some common mistakes parents and caregivers make include:

  • using a forward-facing child car seat too soon;
  • installing the car seat too loosely and allowing the seat to move more than 1 inch at the belt path;
  • allowing the harness straps to fit loosely so they fail the pinch test; and
  • placing the chest clip too low, rather than at armpit level.

To help avoid some of these common mistakes, read the instructions that came with your car seat as well as your vehicle owner’s manual. Reading these instructions will help you determine whether to use a seat belt or the lower anchors, and when to use the tether to secure your seat. Your car seat instructions will help you position the car seat (rear facing, forward facing, or reclined) and properly use the internal harness, chest-clip, and buckle.

Q. How can I get hands-on help?

A. You’re in luck! It’s Child Passenger Safety Week, so child passenger safety technicians and other safety professionals are hosting events nationwide where parents and caregivers can get hands-on help to ensure their child is in the most appropriate car seat, and that it is installed and being used properly. Saturday, September 23, is National Seat Check Saturday; to find an event in your community, visit www.safercar.gov. And help is also available year-round, too. Find a car seat check event or child passenger safety technician in your area to make sure you’re using the right seat, every trip, every time.

Car seats, booster seats, and seat belts are a child’s best defense against injury and death in the event of a motor vehicle crash. Be sure you’re making the right choice to protect your child!

Stephanie Shaw is an NTSB Safety Advocate in the Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications and a certified child passenger safety technician.

Behind-the-Scene @ NTSB

Welcome to the introductory episode of the newest advocacy tool from the National Transportation Safety Board!

Behind-the-Scene @NTSB will be an opportunity for our agency to share the stories of our amazing staff and highlight the exceptional work that is being done to advance transportation. Each episode will feature an interview with NTSB staff. We’ll delve into their transportation career history, discuss interesting investigations or reports that they have worked on, and share how their expertise improves safety.Behindthescene

There are many amazing and interesting facets to the work being accomplished at the NTSB and we look forward to sharing these stories.

Erik and James in action
Technical Producer James Anderson (lt) and Host Erik Strickland (rt) prepare for an episode taping.

New episodes will be available every other Thursday and will soon be available on Apple Podcasts and Google Play.

Keep up-to-date by connecting with NTSB on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

If you have questions about the podcast, feel free to email us at SafetyAdvocacy@NTSB.gov

Inside the NTSB’s General Aviation Investigative Process

An Aeromedical Mystery Solved

By: Clint Johnson, Chief, Alaska Region, Office of Aviation Safety

This is the fifth blog in a new series of posts about the NTSB’s general aviation investigative process. This series, written by NTSB staff, explores how medical, mechanical, and general safety issues are examined in our investigations.

Clint Johnson
Clint Johnson at industry event

After nearly 20 years of investigating hundreds of aviation accidents, I recently encountered an invisible killer.

I was enjoying a late summer Saturday afternoon with my wife in Anchorage, Alaska, when my phone rang. My wife – a 20-year-veteran NTSB spouse – knew from the look on my face that our quiet weekend at home had just ended.

An Anchorage Fire Department dispatcher was calling. She reported that rescue crews were on the scene of a fatal airplane crash in a residential neighborhood only 20 minutes away.

When I arrived, I was briefed by a small army of Anchorage Police and Fire Department

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Hefty Polar Cub airplane crash site

crews. Behind the wall of fire trucks, police cars, stunned residents, and TV cameras, I caught a glimpse of the inverted and burned remains of what looked like a float-equipped Piper 11 in the middle of the residential roadway.

We continued to talk as we walked toward the wreckage site. The pungent smell of burned aircraft wreckage filled the air as we proceeded past the yellow police tape. Finally, I was close enough to see that only the welded steel-tube structure and engine remained, with the fuselage and wings barely recognizable. The postcrash fire had incinerated much of the wreckage.

Witnesses had told the police that just before the accident they watched in amazement as the airplane completed two, low-level, high-speed, 360° right turns over the neighborhood – the first 150-200 feet above ground level, and the second much lower. One homeowner stated that the airplane passed over his home about 50 feet above his roof.

Witnesses also reported that the airplane’s bank angle increased significantly on the second 360° right turn; one pilot-rated witness estimated the bank at more than 60°. Witnesses also reported hearing the airplane’s engine operating in a manner consistent with high power settings throughout both 360° turns.

One man was mowing his lawn as the airplane completed the second, steep, 360° right turn. He said that the airplane flew directly over his yard, then the nose of the airplane pitched down and it began to descend rapidly. The engine rpm then increased significantly, and the wings rolled level just before the airplane impacted a stand of tall trees adjacent to his home, severing its floats.

It crashed on a neighborhood road, coming to rest inverted. About 30 seconds after impact, a fire ensued, which engulfed the entire airplane before any of the witnesses made it to the wreckage.

Sadly, after the fire department crews extinguished the fire, they found the remains of the 75‑year-old pilot and his dog still inside the incinerated wreckage.

While we all waited for the medical examiner to arrive, I began interviewing witnesses. Most concluded, or were well on their way to concluding, that the pilot was “just showing off” to someone on the ground. But the NTSB sets a high bar for conclusions. It was way too early for me to go there.

At the scene, I met a family member, along with a close friend of the pilot. Understandably upset, both reported that it was highly unusual and uncharacteristic behavior for the pilot to be flying as the witnesses consistently described to me. They went on to say that to their knowledge, the pilot didn’t know anyone in the area, but that, given the pilot’s anticipated flight route, he would have been flying over the neighborhood while on the return flight home.

Then, as the pair was preparing to leave the scene, the pilot’s friend said something in passing – something about his longtime buddy’s history of cardiac problems, which, in his opinion, caused the pilot’s erratic flight maneuvers.

I pressed him for more information, but it became clear that he wasn’t prepared to provide any additional information on the subject then and there, and I decided that this was neither the time or place to discuss it. As the pair got back into their car and slowly drove away, I knew that the following Monday morning I’d likely be attending the pilot’s autopsy.

For now, I needed to document and examine the wreckage before it was removed. This included determining control cable continuity to the flight control system, engine control continuity, and more.

The engine sustained significate impact damage, but only minimal fire damage. There were no mechanical problems that I could find on-scene that would explain what the witnesses reported. However, a much more detailed wreckage exam would be accomplished later, once the wreckage was moved to a more secure and suitable site.

On Monday morning, I found myself at the State medical examiner’s facility, meeting with the pathologist who would be working my case. I explained to her what I was looking for, and she started the exam.

The entire autopsy took over two hours to complete, and the pathologist found no conclusive evidence for medical incapacitation from an acute cardiac event. However, per standard protocol, the autopsy team took blood and tissue samples to send to the FAA’s Bioaeronautical Sciences Research Laboratory in Oklahoma City for a toxicological exam.

I knew I would not have the tox report for two to three months, but the autopsy yielded at least one more piece of valuable information: the pilot died from trauma, not the postcrash fire. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this would be an extremely important data point that would help solve the case in the end.

Over the next two weeks, I visited the wreckage two separate times at a local aircraft salvage yard. I looked for evidence that would support various theories, but nothing ever panned out. It was one dead end after another.

Then on a cold and snowy autumn afternoon, the FAA’s tox report on the pilot appeared in my e-mail. I opened it and scanned the results, and only then realized just what I had been missing all this time: Carbon Monoxide, an odorless, colorless and tasteless gas – and a silent killer of general aviation pilots.

The pilot’s carboxyhemoglobin (carbon monoxide) level was an extremely high 48%. To put these results in context, nonsmokers may normally have up to 3% carboxyhemoglobin in their blood, and heavy smokers may have levels of 10% to 15%. And according to family members, this pilot did not even smoke.

Since the pilot died of blunt-force trauma prior to the ensuing fire, it was not possible that this CO level was an effect of the fire. But it was possible that it was a cause of the crash.

I realized that over the last few months I had missed an important and somewhat elementary piece of evidence, the airplane’s exhaust system. I quickly reviewed my on-scene photos, and I could clearly see that the entire exhaust system sustained relatively minor damage in the accident.

Within 15 minutes of receiving the toxicology results, I was on my way back to the stored wreckage. I ended up bringing the entire exhaust system back to the office, muffler, heat exchanger/muff and all. Like the autopsy examiners I had met months earlier, I went to work on this simpler machinery, peeling back the heater shroud.

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Accident muffler can assembly

Inside I found a severely degraded muffler with portions missing, which allowed raw exhaust gases to enter the main cabin through the airplane’s heater system.

Unfortunately, neither the family or any of the pilot’s friends could find any maintenance logbooks for the accident airplane, so I was unable to determine just when the last muffler inspection was done (if ever). However, after talking with several friends of the deceased pilot, many said that he did his own maintenance, and he was not an aviation mechanic.

They went on to say that the pilot, with the help of a few other friends, installed the more powerful Lycoming O-320 engine about 5 years earlier, but none could provide any additional information about how the pilot maintained his airplane.

However, I could report directly to the family what circumstances led up to the death of their loved one, and I was able to show them the physical evidence that I found.

The NTSB’s probable cause summed it all up: “The pilot’s severe impairment from carbon monoxide poisoning in flight, which resulted in a loss of control, and a subsequent inflight collision with trees and terrain.”

Often, it takes time, patience, and knowledge of the human operator, the machine, and the environment to solve an accident mystery to provide answers.