A seven-month-old baby, a car seat and lessons from a road crash

Erin is safely strapped in a car seat, which saved her from harm during a crash that injured her parents.

January 13, 2018 is a day that is forever etched in the memories of Marco and Elaine Garcia.

The couple and their seven-month-old daughter were making their way through the Northern Luzon Expressway (NLEX) in what was supposed to be a routine drive.

Marco was driving, almost auto-pilot, on a trip they had taken countless times since Erin was born. Mother and daughter were asleep behind Marco, who was strapped into the driver's side of the Hilux. Elaine had been used to unbuckling herself to be closer to Erin, who was herself strapped behind the driver's seat in a rear-facing child restraint.

As they were cruising along NLEX, the 18-wheeler truck they were following suddenly hesitated, the driver perhaps realizing he had turned at the exit by mistake.

On a highway, and running at 80 kilometers per hour, hesitation can be costly. That particular day, the truck driver’s hesitation led to an abrupt stop that triggered a chain reaction Marco would remember his entire life.

“It’s very unusual. I feel that I remember every detail, the 31-year-old dad said as he recounted the experience.

The physics of the crash is unmistakable, with most of the contents of the 18-wheeler subjected to the inertia of the full stop. In a few seconds, the Garcia family’s road trip would instantaneously become a cacophony of shattering glass, crunching metal, and perhaps the burn and skid of rubber as Marco floored the brakes, trying his hardest to avoid crashing into the truck.

The scene of the crash site along NLEX.

A man inspects the Hilux prior to towing. The driver of the truck escaped the crash site.

Elaine was sent flying from the backseat and into the glass. Her head hit the rear view mirror and her entire body ended up through the windshield. Marco’s hands were crushed by the impact and trapped at the steering wheel. He suffered bruises around his torso that was wrapped in the relative safety of the seatbelt.

An adrenaline rush allowed Marco to break open the car door so he could help Elaine. A vehicle behind them stopped to assist.

Throughout the ordeal, Erin was unharmed and saved by the rear-facing child restraint seat.

It took months for the couple to recover from their injuries.

Marco had his hands stitched; they now bear the memory of that incident. Elaine, for her part, bears most of the brunt of the crash. Her injuries include a broken left collar bone and four broken ribs that were dangerously close to piercing through some of her organs. She needed stitches on her head, and suffered from internal bleeding.

Among Elaine Garcia's injuries were a broken collarbone and a few broken ribs, and a head concussion.

For weeks, Elaine could not execute a full inhale and she had to wear arm support to help her bones heal.

Saved by a car seat

One can only imagine how the crash would have hurt the fragile Erin had she not been strapped safely in a car seat.

The incident came as both Houses of Congress started discussions requiring vehicle owners to secure their children in a car restraint system (CRS). A year and a month later, President Rodrigo Duterte signed Republic Act 11229 or The Child Safety in Motor Vehicles Act.

Under the law, parents like the Garcias who own vehicles, are required to make sure their children who stand less than 4'11" are in the safest parts of a vehicle.

The law requires children to be strapped safely at the backseat, with no child below 12 years old allowed on the front seat. Infants like Erin, for their part, are required to be safely cradled inside a certified CRS.

Penalties range from P1,000 to P5,000, as well as the suspension of license, for drivers caught in violation of the law. Manufacturers, distributors, importers, retailers, and sellers, are also required to comply with safety standards set by law or face fines from P50,000 to P100,000.

Erin is a perfect example of safety conditioning, as the family made sure she would feel right at home in the comfort of the CRS. The couple invested in a Graco hybrid cradle/stroller, upon the insistence of family members and relatives living abroad. As a force of habit, Erin would grow up seeing the car seat as hers and no one else's.

One of Marco's aunts from abroad once asked him why the devices were not required in the Philippines. Now they are.

The price of a CRS ranges from P9,000 to P20,000, depending on the brand, according to the Garcias. Some are for sale for as low as P6,000 to P7,000. For parents who value their children, price is not an issue.

A study by the Institute of Health Policy and Development Studies in the University of the Philippines Manila (UP-IHPDS) says the devices are "available and accessible to Filipino consumers."

It nonetheless urges the government to be considerate of the socio-economic situation in the country should it require motorists to own CRS devices. (The World Health Organization (WHO)-funded study was conducted before the car seat law was signed last Feb. 22).

The UP-IHPDS study recommends that government offer subsidies in the form of rentals or coupons, aside from partnerships with car manufacturers that would give away the devices along with car purchases.

Raise public awareness

Erin turns two this year. Using a car seat is routine for her now.

Equally important, the study says there is a need to increase the public’s awareness of the devices.

Even the Garcias have questions of their own.

Apparently, Elaine's unbuckling of her own seatbelt was an issue of user-experience. With the rear-facing child restraint strapped behind Marco's driver's seat, Elaine could only be safely strapped if she was two seats away on the opposite side of the backseat. Motherly instinct kept her near Erin.

"Shouldn't the CRS be in the middle instead,” Elaine asked, “for mothers like me to be strapped safely as we tend to our children?"

In other countries, Marco chimed in, it is illegal for parents to attend to children inside moving vehicles because of really strict laws. "If I remember correctly, the parents there stop their vehicles to take care of crying babies."

Asked if the same policy is possible here, Marco said: "It’s doable." But this could only work, he added, if the policymakers include a pullover provision in the implementing rules and regulations.

At the moment, stakeholders are still drafting the implementing rules for RA 11229.

But after the incident more than a year ago, Elaine makes sure she straps herself in, as she travels regularly from their home in Las Pinas to her Makati City workplace. "It changed me."

Marco, for his part, appreciates the comfort the CRS provides Erin. "It's the best feature of the rear facing car seats: its buckle design, and its cushion that makes it comfortable for infants. The device pulls the infant user towards her backrest during brakes. “Even if the impact is strong, she probably will just get startled."

According to the WHO 2018 Global Status Report on Road Safety, road traffic injuries are currently the leading cause of death for children and young adults (aged 5-29 years) worldwide. This “signals the need for a shift in the current child and adolescent health agenda, which to date, has largely neglected road safety,” the report said.

The new law aims to change the statistics and hopes to improve the chances of families traveling safely in private vehicles.

The photos in the article were taken by the Garcia couple.

Yas D. Ocampo is a journalist based in Davao City. He is in charge of the digital executions of Mindanao Times, Mindanao's longest running community newspaper.

This story was produced with the help of a grant from The Global Road Safety Partnership (GRSP), a hosted project of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).


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