BISMARCK, N.D. - The North Dakota departments of health and transportation just spent the month of February raising awareness for child passenger safety. At the same time, Rolla Representative Marvin Nelson learned the value of their message first-hand.
In all the excitement Nelson and his granddaughters were feeling to spend another weekend together, he didn't forget the advice his daughter gave them as they began the more than two-and-a-half hour drive to his house.
"I'm buckling Olivia in and my daughter goes, 'make sure you got that clip up there as high as it goes,'" Nelson recounted.
The simple step of securing the chest clip in the proper place is part of a bigger problem of families across the state failing to secure children safely in the car. The Health Department says more than half of families in North Dakota aren't buckling in harnesses right, with 35 percent of them left loose.
"You never think the day I'm doing that is going to be the day I hit something," Nelson said.
The thought stuck with him as darkness fell on the rural North Dakota roads.
When he saw he what he described as "a pair of brown stockings" in the road, it was replaced by another thought.
"I just go... we're gonna hit. There's just nothing in my mind that I can do to not hit that moose."
Nelson's recently purchased van hit the moose standing in his path. With shards of glass filling his eyes and a mild concussion setting in, his mind went to the backseat.
"Both girls were saying, 'Poppa, Poppa, Poppa,'" he remembers. "I'd ask them if they were okay and then, I'd tell them they're okay."
The girls were covered in shattered glass and moose hair, but remarkable unhurt. That's when another driver came up on them to call for help and put Nelson's granddaughters in a warm car. Soon, he says he was hearing from the good Samaritan and local first responders that the girls were back to their chatty selves. The children were going to be just fine.
"That's a win for us, we like to hear the success stories," Dawn Mayer, Director of Child Passenger Safety for North Dakota, said.
Recently, Mayer has been warning parents, grandparents and caregivers that 73% of car seats aren't used correctly.
She says the harnesses are designed to distribute the forces of a crash over the boniest parts of the body. That's why car seats have reduced crash-related deaths among infants by 71% and by 54% for toddlers.
"We want to make sure the harnesses are nice and snug," she said. "Sometimes, children don't like a tight harness. But there are benefits to that."
Safety experts say the best bet to keep children safe is to stay in the car seat they have until they have maxed out the size requirements.
"Every step, graduating from a rear-facing to a seatbelt, it's a little less protection for the child. So, they recommend not rushing those steps," she explained.
Meanwhile, Nelson is recovering from a torn iris, a cut tear duct, and several bruises: nothing, he says, he would trade for the gratitude that this story will only be a footnote in his family's history.
For answers to any questions about car seat installation or use, North Dakotans can call Child Passenger Safety at 1-800-472-2286 or visit a monthly car seat check-up.