ANNAPOLIS – Autumn Skeen thought she was doing everything right.
Obeying Washington state law, she seat buckled her 4-year-old son into their 1988 Dodge Raider sport utility vehicle for a trip to central Oregon. Three hours into the trip, a gust of wind caused her to lose control of the vehicle, rolling the truck over three times.
Although she was critically injured, Skeen’s seat belt held her in, saving her life. But Anton died – his seat belt remained buckled, but he was thrown from the vehicle into the median and died of massive head injuries.
It was a “complete failure” of what a seat belt is supposed to do, Skeen said. His almost 50-pound frame was too small for a regular seat belt.
Since the accident, more than five years ago, Skeen learned a booster seat may have saved his life, and she has become a national advocate for laws mandating their use.
Skeen testified at a Maryland hearing last year at the request of Delegate William A. Bronrott, D-Montgomery, sponsor of an unsuccessful bill mandating booster seats for children up to age 8.
An opponent in the House argued that tourists would stay away from the state to avoid being ticketed for an offense that few states had.
Police officers have discretion in issuing tickets, Skeen said.
“The law is meant to educate and protect people,” she said. “It’s not meant to be Draconian.”
Lawmakers are too concerned about drivers and not concerned enough about children, Skeen said.
“It’s not a political issue. It’s a public health one.”
Like immunization laws, booster seat regulations are for children’s safety, she said.
From 1994 to 2000, 3,531 children between ages 4 and 8 were killed riding in motor vehicles, according to the Fatality Analysis Reporting System. More than 84 percent were unrestrained or in an adult seatbelt.
In Maryland, 45 children died with 82 percent of them unrestrained or in a seatbelt.
Parents assume that if state law permits a particular action it must be safe, Skeen said.
“Parents walk into this trap, thinking they’re protecting their kid. It’s a travesty,” she said.
Becoming an advocate for booster seats has helped Skeen heal, she said, but “survivor advocacy is the worst reason to become an advocate.” Her goal, she said, is to keep other parents “from walking in my shoes.”
Washington state passed the first booster seat law in March 2001, but it doesn’t go into effect until July. For Skeen it was a “painful compromise,” in that it protects children up to age 6 or 60 pounds, but it should go further. Skeen said she is already trying to amend it.
Given the research, Skeen said, she doesn’t understand why the age gap remains.
“Sudden, violent death is tragic,” she said. “You never get over the grief that you could have done something different. (It’s) such a terrible, terrible curse. I do this for other parents.”