Olivia, Blake and Evan Smith sit in car seats and boosters.
Car seats and boosters can save lives. Just ask this family – Ben and Janna Smith and kids Olivia, Blake and Evan. (Jodi Stanley | Spectrum Health Beat)

In 2011, Janna Smith was riding in the back seat of the car with 4-month-old daughter, Olivia. Her husband, Ben, was driving when they were hit broadside by another car. The impact took place on Olivia’s side.

“I could see the base and carrier of Olivia’s car seat move slightly with the impact but then return to its original position, which was exactly what it was designed to do in an accident,” Janna explained.

While Janna suffered some painful injuries, Olivia was unharmed. And it was her car seat that saved her. While that’s a happy ending, the story doesn’t end there.

Always count on change

Fast forward to 2014.

After many struggles to become pregnant with Olivia, Janna and Ben decided to try for a sibling. They focused on their appreciation of Olivia, no matter what the future held.

When they found out they were having twins, they couldn’t have been happier. Nearly as surprising was how complicated it became to find a new car that would fit all three kids across one bench seat.

The Smiths knew from their scary accident how important it would be to have that row of car seats lined up in rock-solid, life-saving perfection.

“We looked at so many cars,” Janna said. “Will three car seats fit? No kids in the way back. Is there enough cargo room? Scratch that one, it’s got a console in the middle. Can it tow our trailer?”

Finally, they found a used Lincoln Navigator that fit the bill.

Brothers Evan and Blake, were born five weeks early on April 24, 2014. They spent their early weeks in the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Did Janna and Ben assume the knowledge they already had was up to snuff when it was time to take the new babies home?

“No way,” Janna said. “You can’t leave anything to chance. We knew all too well from our accident with Olivia how important it is to have everything snapped and perfectly adjusted. She was safe from the direct hit because the straps were adjusted for her body. You can’t underestimate the value of that, which is why we still have our seats checked as the kids grow. How do you know they are buckled right? You go to the pros. We’re on a first-name basis.”

What you might not know

While awareness of proper child restraint use in cars has increased, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration still estimates that about 75 percent of child seats and boosters are improperly installed in family vehicles.

The Smiths considered themselves lucky to be part of the positive 25 percent.

In the Smiths’ case, and for all families whose babies are going home after a NICU stay, there is extra assurance that all is well. NICU babies must pass a car seat test with monitors attached, before they can be discharged from the hospital. This automatically ensures that NICU parents receive expert guidance from the first ride home. But every healthy baby going home is just as precious, and help is easy to find.

So, before Evan and Blake got to check out of the hospital, the Smiths consulted the experts at Helen DeVos Injury Prevention program, with Olivia and the two new car seats. They learned how to get all three seats properly secured on the bench seat and confirm how to assess strap and buckle placement for each child.

“It’s not just about the car seat user manual, either,” Janna added. “Look in your car’s owner’s manual to confirm how your vehicle is designed to work with infant/child safety seats. At the Safe Kids car seat safety check events, they thoroughly install your seat in your car with your kids. They installed an additional convertible car seat in my mom’s conversion van, too. If grandparents or babysitters will be transporting your kids, their vehicles are just as important.” To get started, watch our video on how to properly secure your baby in the car seat.

If possible, plan for each car to have its own car seats. If that’s not an option, make sure everyone who is moving the seats from one car to the next is completely educated on the details. If in doubt, stop in at a local fire department to have the seats checked or to be installed in the other vehicle before transporting. Having little ones safe at every trip, in every vehicle is critical.

Today, Olivia Smith is a charming, precocious 4-year-old. She loves her role as big sister of her equally adorable twin brothers, who just turned 1 year. And Ben and Janna Smith enjoy the peace of mind that comes with knowing their kids are as safe as can be, every trip, every car, every time.

Expectant parents? Follow in the Smiths footsteps and get ready for baby with our Pregnancy and Parenting classes, too.