Making Kids Safer, One Car Seat at a Time

Not much is more gratifying than having someone thank you after their young child came through a car accident safely because you alerted them about, then corrected, the incorrect installation of the child’s car seat. 

You volunteered your expertise — now a child is alive and unhurt. Darren Qunell of Naperville knows the warm feeling well.

But he never planned to become a car seat expert. In 1999, he was just a really frustrated dad. 

"At a year old, my son grew out of his infant car seat," recalls Quell. "I’d purchased a new car seat, and unbeknownst to me, it was one of the more difficult seats to install."

He struggled and struggled with the installation. As he did, he almost had to laugh. If he, an engineer, couldn’t install a simple car seat, how was anyone able to do this correctly? 

"I couldn’t believe how hard it was," says Qunell, who later discovered the seat he’d chosen also didn’t fit well with his vehicle, a Saturn.

When his daughter was born a year later, he became involved in — and later became the coordinator of — DuPage County Safe Kids. He took a one-week training course to certify as a car seat technician and began volunteering at various events, teaching parents how to correctly install their car seat in their vehicle. 

Around that time, due to some daycare issues, the Fermilab electrical engineer quit his job to become a stay-at-home dad. He helped turn DuPage County Safe Kids into a non-profit group, then started a separate website of his own to help other parents find a good car seat that also worked well with their particular vehicle.

"It really wasn’t anything, it just had useful information," maintains Qunell. "Then I added a community forum where people could post questions and find answers."

Qunell paid for the website at first. But six years later, the traffic increased so much he had to add advertising to pay for it. He also started a side business installing car seats because many of the agencies previously offering that service suspended it due to local government cost cutting.

"There are still places that will check your car seat for free, if you can wait for an event or are willing to travel to one," says Qunell. "But more than half my business is helping people who have a baby coming very soon, or have a baby already here who need a quick installation. I cater to people who need extra attention, service at their home or something installed quickly."  

That’s how I met Qunell. Something of a car seat zealot myself, it’s been 20 years since I thought about them. So when I needed to transport our brand-new granddaughter, I wanted to be absolutely certain her new car seat was installed correctly.  

Naperville police no longer offer this service, so I went online to find Qunell, who charges $50 for service at his home and a slightly higher fee for service at a client’s home. 

During the appointment, Qunell brought me up to date with safety rules that have changed since back when my son’s infant seat was little more than a plastic bucket with slots for a seat belt.

The biggest change is that rear-facing seats, once used only for infants through 1 year old, are now encouraged as long as possible — at least up to age 2, and longer if the child isn’t too big. 

"Kids are as much as five times safer in rear-facing seats," explains Qunell.

Thanks to people like Qunell who educate new parents and caregivers, the number of children killed in car accidents has been steadily dropping for years, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Still, motor vehicle crashes remain the number one killer of children in the U.S. is free and full of specific information about the features and pros and cons of each car seat and how each fits with various vehicles. It also lists free local car seat check events throughout the year. 

The importance of correctly installing a car seat can’t be overstated, says Qunell.

"Getting people to use car seats is the first step, then getting them to use them correctly. At that point, the risk drops to almost zero in a crash."

Zero. When it comes to a child you love, there’s nothing better than odds like that.