ANNAPOLIS – Child booster seats save lives, say sponsors of bills this year to close the gap in Maryland child safety restraint laws by requiring children age 4 to 6 ride in safety seats.
Under Maryland law, and in most states, children under 4 must use safety seats in motor vehicles, but after 4, children may use adult seat belts.
That law doesn’t protect older children, who, research shows, still need more restraint than an adult seat belt provides.
After 4 years or 40 pounds, children typically outgrow traditional child seats and use vehicle seat belts, which don’t fit properly, said Delegate William A. Bronrott, D-Montgomery, sponsor of the House bill.
Vehicle fatality rates for children have dropped in all age groups, but those aged 4 to 8, where the rate has plateaued, Bronrott said.
There’s ample evidence, he said, that using booster seats could push that age group’s fatality rate down. He cites statistics showing 4- and 5-year-olds in booster seats are about 70 percent less likely to suffer significant injury in a crash than those with seat belts.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration agrees. Booster seats, it said, “can help prevent injury by making adult-sized seat belts fit correctly.” It recommended the seats be used until children reach 80 pounds and a height of 4 feet, 9 inches.
The agency has testified that lap belts can ride over a child’s stomach and the shoulder belt can cut across a child’s neck, resulting in serious or fatal injuries, including damage to spinal columns, spinal cords, livers, spleens and bowels.
“Maryland still has a dangerous gap in child safety,” Bronrott said. “Improper fit can be lethal.”
So far, Maryland senators agree. A similar bill sponsored by Sen. Jennie M. Forehand, D-Montgomery, unanimously passed the Senate Friday.
The law would be effective Oct. 1, 2003, for Marylanders and two years later for out-of-state vehicles. The $48 fine and court fees can be waived if parents prove they obtained a booster seat.
Seven states have booster seat laws, and this year 24 more plus the District are considering them.
The National Safe Kids Campaign, in 2001, gave Maryland an “F” rating for its child protection safety laws.
Education, strong laws and active enforcement are needed to increase the use of boosters, Bronrott said.
The Partners for Child Passenger Safety found in a recent study that Maryland has the highest booster seat usage of 15 states studied, yet only 14 percent of children aged 4 to 8 are secured in them.
More than 90 percent of the seriously injured children in the study were not in booster seats.
Each year, seven Maryland children in this age group die and 700 are injured in motor vehicle crashes, the Montgomery County Division of Consumer Affairs testified at the bill’s hearing.
Many parents and caregivers do not understand the risk that adult seat belts pose for children between 40 and 80 pounds and rely on state laws for guidance, according to a NHTSA research project.
All 50 states and the District have child restraint laws, but they are not uniform and many are not up to date.
Christine Guarino, of Germantown, credits a booster seat for saving her son’s life three years ago.
Seven miles from her home, their van was totaled by a Mack dump truck.
Stephen, then 5, received the brunt of the impact, Guarino said. Still buckled in his booster seat, his foot rested on the truck’s bumper. Yet he only suffered facial lacerations and a concussion.
Booster seats have many other advocates. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade association, supports the seats as “the most cost- effective solution,” said Eron Shosteck, a spokesman.
But the legislation also has its foes.
Last year’s measure was gutted by amendments from Delegate Dana Lee Dembrow, D-Montgomery. He called the legislation “grossly excessive” and said it undermined parents’ authority. It also would make Maryland the only state, he said, to give parents without booster seats tickets.
Dembrow required the law wouldn’t take effect until two adjacent states passed similar laws or until the state purchased booster seats for all parents.
States, Dembrow said, now are passing less restrictive versions of Bronrott’s 2001 bill, thus proving, he said, “We did the right thing by not passing it last year.”
Bronrott has tried to address Dembrow’s concerns in this year’s legislation, and the foe seems pleased.
This year’s bill, Dembrow said, is “substantially more narrow,” mandating boosters up to age 6. However, he said, he is reserving judgment until he studies it.
Dembrow, too, has some support in his opposition.
Emphasizing boosters is a “misplaced priority,” according to an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety report. While its research shows booster seats improve belt fit in some instances, benefits depend on “the specific child, the specific booster seat, and the specific car model.”
A clear booster seat definition, said the institute, doesn’t exist.