Researchers look at safety of car seat installation with virtual help

Motor vehicle crashes cause the death of an American child every three hours, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Car seats are documented to reduce injuries and deaths but are installed incorrectly by parents into their vehicles with startling frequency. The University of Alabama at Birmingham and Safe Kids Worldwide have received $2.7 million from the National Institutes for Health to begin studies that look at the use of interactive virtual presence to remotely assist parents to properly install car seats in their vehicles.

“When installed correctly, car seats reduce the risk of serious injury and death to infants and young children involved in a vehicle crash roughly threefold,” said David Schwebel, Ph.D., associate dean for research in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences. “We will look at the efficacy of using interactive virtual presence technology to assist parents with the installation of car seats.”

A network of trained technicians, many affiliated with Safe Kids Worldwide, works with parents across the United States to help them correctly use and install car seats through “car seat checks.” This program is effective in reducing errors in car seat installations; but the services are highly under-utilized due to barriers in access, scheduling complications and resources to staff the car seat checkpoints sufficiently.

New technology, known as interactive virtual presence, enables parents to access an expert who can assist in the car seat installation virtually. With a smartphone or tablet camera, users connect to remote CPS technicians, who walk them through proper installation. The experts see and hear from the parents, and they can point out danger spots or problematic issues directly on the video image through a three-dimensional image overlay. Once the seat is installed, they can talk parents through the steps necessary to verify it was done correctly — and confirm proper installation with their own eyes.

CarSeat5David Schwebel, Ph.D., associate dean for research in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences

If effective, the technology could supplement or replace car seat checks and significantly reduce the number of errors made in car seat installations nationwide, potentially revolutionizing how government, industry and nonprofit agencies help parents install restraints.

The study will compare the existing resources of trained technicians with the new interactive virtual technology to show that the new technology does not perform inferiorly to the existing resources. Consenting participants will be randomly assigned at seven participating Safe Kids locations nationwide, with one site being based at Children’s of Alabama. Car seat installation will be evaluated with an objective checklist immediately after installation and four months later.

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