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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Child passenger safety lab to tour rural Inland Northwest, teaching proper car seat installation

Karlee Whitehead, 22, of St. Maries, gets a few pointers during the Buckle Up for Life, Safe Start program in Coeur d’Alene on Wednesday. Karlee’s due date is June 10. Buckle Up for Life is a national child passenger safety program and Safe Start is an infant and child safety organization based in Coeur d’Alene. The mobile safety lab project will travel to remote areas of Eastern Washington, North Idaho and western Montana.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

The statistics are sobering: Children in rural communities are five times more likely to die in a car crash, and those children are likely to be using incorrect seat restraints.

A new program plans to help teach proper car seat installation in remote areas of Eastern Washington, North Idaho and western Montana.

Safe Start, a Coeur d’Alene-based nonprofit focused on child health and safety, will use a “mobile safety lab” to visit 24 rural communities during the next year.

The mobile lab consists of a Toyota Tundra and customized trailer that was funded in part by Buckle Up for Life, a national child-passenger safety program created by Toyota and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

“We know that a properly installed car seat can mean the difference between life and death in the event of a crash,” said Patrick Edmunds, child passenger safety expert at Cincinnati Children’s and program manager for Buckle Up for Life. “And now, thanks to Safe Start’s Rural Education Outreach program, no family in Northern Idaho, Eastern Washington or western Montana lives too far away to get the help that they need.”

The lab was unveiled at a ribbon-cutting event in Coeur d’Alene Wednesday.

Buckle Up for Life Director and Co-founder Dr. Rebeccah Brown, a pediatric surgeon at Cincinnati Children’s, attended the ceremony.

“I’ve seen firsthand, many times, the horrific consequences of children not properly restrained in a vehicle,” she said. “We created Buckle Up for Life because we know that educating parents and caregivers on proper car seat installation, as well as providing access to age-appropriate car seats, makes a difference.”

A crew of certified child passenger safety technicians will use mobile lab to provide safety checks and one-on-one instruction on proper use of car seats and seat belts.

They will provide free car seats to families in need.

Karlee Whitehead, a 22-year-old expecting mother from St. Maries, said the inspection was helpful.

“I’ve seen so many young parents my age, everyone’s doing it wrong,” she said.

The trailer can transport dozens of car seats, education materials, folding chairs and tables for pop-up events at parks and church parking lots.

Next Gen Electric of Coeur d’Alene customized the trailer with solar panels, batteries, power outlets and outside lighting, which will take care of electricity needs in the field.

Safe Start began visiting rural communities a year and a half ago, using a U-Haul trailer.

“We could not believe the need,” said Liz Montgomery, Safe Start’s executive director.

Small towns often lack educational resources and access to new car seats, so it is crucial to bring these resources to them.

Having a car seat is not enough, though. It needs to be the right seat for the age and size of the child, and it must be installed correctly.

Brian Rauscher, Safe Start’s director of operations, said he typically sees about 10 types of mistakes, such as not tightening the harness enough or not locking the retractor if using a seat belt.

“Our whole goal is just to educate parents and caregivers, show them how to do it properly,” Rauscher said.

A tendency in rural communities is to reuse seats that are too old and have expired. Most car seats expire after six to 10 years, depending on the brand and type.

“What we find in these rural communities where they have no access to purchase new car seats, they kind of recirculate throughout the community for years,” Rauscher said.

Car seats expire from normal wear and tear, as well as from sitting in a car year-round with large temperature swings from winter to summer, which can deteriorate the integrity of the plastic over time.

“Everything breaks down,” Edmunds said. “Car seats are incredible tools, but there’s nothing magic about them. They’re plastic, they’re metal, they’re fabric.”

Even if a car seat has not expired, it might be recalled. Safety standards change over the years, so older car seats might not be up to date.

Carma McKinnon, Idaho State’s coordinator of child passenger safety, said she is using Safe Start as a model to focus on rural outreach throughout the state in 2024.

Appointments for Safe Start’s tour schedule can be reserved at

Urbanites living in Spokane or Coeur d’Alene can also schedule car seat safety checks at Safe Start’s office in Coeur d’Alene.

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.