Kettering, McLaren hospital conduct research on safe car seats for special needs children

A partnership between Kettering University and McLaren Flint could lead to safer practices and guidelines in transporting young children with body casts.

Mechanical Engineering faculty members Dr. Patrick Atkinson and Dr. Theresa Atkinson; Crash Safety Center Director Dr. Janet Brelin-Fornari; McLaren Flint Orthopedic Surgery residents Dr. Angela Collins, M.D., Ph.D., and Dr. Sean Caskey, D.O.; and Kettering students are testing car seats and harnesses at Kettering’s Crash Safety Center to see which methods of transportation are the safest.

There isn’t literature and data supporting the current methods physicians and families use to move young children with physical special needs, such body casts, or hip spica cast, Collins said. The casts are used to treat pediatric musculoskeletal issues of the hip and thigh.

As children in such casts don’t fit in traditional car seats, parents often use special car seats or special harnesses similar to rock climbing harnesses they purchase or receive on loan from a hospital, but those methods aren’t backed with data showing they are safe, she said. The car seats can cost $150 to $1,300 and are not required to be tested with child-size crash dummies in casts.

Patrick Atkinson said many parents install traditional car seats incorrectly. The special car seats can be more complicated than traditional car seats, increasing the chance of misuse.

Transporting children with temporary physical problems is so difficult, some parents choose to keep the child homebound, others give up on a car seat and instead hold the child in their lap, which is illegal, or call an ambulance to take the child to appointments. However, there are no studies that show ambulances are safer than other vehicles, Collins said.

Kettering researchers are testing the safety of car seats for children with body casts.

“Our objective is to determine how the cast affects the child in the event there is an accident,” Patrick Atkinson said.

There was testing done 10 years ago, but the industry and technology has changed in the past decade and the tested child seats aren’t available now. They hope to create a flowchart for solving problems depending on the age of the child and the nature of the physical needs, Patrick Atkinson said.

The researchers started discussing the research a year ago and spent months reading literature, getting funding and preparing for testing. The McLaren Foundation gave a $25,000 grant and the Pediatric Orthopaedic Society of North America gave $1,000 for the research, Theresa Atkinson said.

Collins and Caskey built a table to cast the dummies on, and a cast expert from McLaren is assisting the research team in casting the dummies.

Testing started in late January. The team is testing four car seats and the EZ-ON harness. The team can do two or three tests per day because each is time-consuming. Collins casts the dummy, and the cast needs to dry. Then, Atkinson and a team of graduate students strap the dummy into the car seat or harness. They put chalk on the dummy’s face to determine whether the head hits the cast or seat. The repeatability of the crash tests in the lab is low enough that they don’t need to run multiple tests on the same car seat or car seat configuration.

Side-impact testing will start in late February.