80% of car seats are incorrectly installed. It's not that hard to do, but there are a number of details you need to get right to install a car seat so that it's safe for the baby in a crash. The seat has to face the correct direction, it has to be tilted the right amount to within a few degrees, it has to be tight against the seat, and then it has to be fastened to something that's secure. Once the seat is installed correctly, getting the baby secure in the seat isn't a small matter either: modern infant car seats have (race car style) five point harnesses with several kinds of adjustement. It's simple, but there are a bunch of things for tired, stressed-out new parents to screw up, so it's not terribly suprising that so many of us do just that.
In September 2002, the US Government tried to improve the situation by mandating a system called LATCH on all new cars. LATCH solves the "fastened to something that's secure" part of installing a car seat. In a car with LATCH, the infant seat attaches to dedicated metal loops behind the seat cushion rather than to the seat belt. Unlike a seat belt, the LATCH mounting points never move, so it's easier to get the infant seat mounted and tight against the seat.
Despite the fact that our car is LATCH equipped, I decided it would be a good idea to get my seat installation checked out. While I was pretty confident in my ability to get a car seat installed, a second set of eyes never hurt. So in keeping with the advice I received from a several good sources, I went down to the local fire house (half a block from our home) and asked them to take a look at my car seat. This type of public service is apparantly usual practice for fire houses in many areas of the country. However, not in Philadelphia.
At the fire house I went to I was told that Philadelphia city fire houses can't inspect car seats because they didn't want to expose themselves to the liability. Their suggestion was to go to a fire house in a suburb, pretend I was from the suburb, and have them inspect the seat. For this kind of upstanding service, Teresa and I pay a 4.3% city income tax (on top of the state and federal income tax). While I don't blame the local firemen for suggesting I go to a suburban fire house, I think it's patently absurd that the city ignores this type of (80% prevalent) public health issue for the sake of reduced liability. This is particularly true when the natural end effect is to attempt to pass the liability on to more upstanding neighboring communities.
For what it's worth the hospital staff couldn't inspect the seat installation either, and for the same reason. For some reason, it's less offensive when a private organization says it than when it comes from the government.
Sorry for the gripe, but this is an irritating (for me) fact of life in the modern world.