ANNAPOLIS – Patricia Campana is one step ahead of the law.
Her 5-year-old son Vincent already uses a booster seat in the car, so when a new child passenger safety law takes effect in October, he’ll be ready.
State laws on child passenger safety currently mandate that a child up to 40 pounds or 4 years old, regardless of weight, must be restrained in a safety seat. A law passed during the 2002 General Assembly session will extend the law to apply to 6-year-olds beginning Oct. 1.
“I just feel like it’s safer,” said Campana, of Crownsville. “I’ll probably keep him in it even longer.”
“Kids usually around ages 4 to 6 are the ones being killed in auto crashes,” said Laura Vetock, program coordinator for Maryland Kids in Safety Seats. Adult seat belts don’t fit younger children properly and so are not as effective for children in accidents, she said.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends that children up to 8 years old use safety seats. Once children reach 40 pounds they should use a booster seat with the vehicle’s regular seat belt.
“Just like we wouldn’t give a child adult strength medicine . . . it’s the same thing with seat belts,” said Meg Miller, occupant protection program coordinator for the Maryland State Highway Administration.
A booster seat elevates the child so that lap and shoulder belts fit correctly. Vetock said there is no “magic number” for determining what age a child is ready for a regular seat belt — it depends on the child’s weight and height.
Without a booster seat, children can’t bend their knees over the edge of the seat and the seat belt is uncomfortable, said Cathy Chase, director of state affairs for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. They often push the shoulder strap under their arms or behind their backs, she said. “They put themselves in a dangerous position.”
Booster seats make children more comfortable, Chase said, and they usually like that it helps them see out the window.
Advocates hope the law will encourage parents to use booster seats not only until age 6, but as long as the child needs. The law forces parents to get booster seats, Chase said, and hopefully once they do they’ll keep children in them even longer than the law requires.
“Laws are crucial to spreading the word,” said Chase. “A lot of parents don’t know why booster seats are important,” but a law gives it importance.
“There is a trend in the last three years for states to pass booster seat laws,” Chase said. More research has been done on the issue, she said, and mothers nationwide have drawn attention to it. Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have child passenger safety laws that require booster seats.
A few years ago it was difficult to find child booster seats, but as more states are passing laws requiring them, “retailers are becoming more savvy,” Miller said. She estimated that booster seat costs could run from $25 to more than $100.
Maryland Kids in Safety Seats runs loaner programs in all parts of the state so that low-income families can have access to safety seats.
Vetock said programs differ from region to region; some might offer a safety seat for $5, others might be $25. Parents calling the program will be referred to a loaner site in their region.
“They’re going to try to take care of people that can’t afford them,” said Miller.
Maryland has a primary seat belt law, which means state troopers can make traffic stops based solely on seat belt violations.
“Seat belt violation is already a priority,” said Sgt. Thornnie Rouse of the Maryland State Police. “Troopers have been pretty good about stopping cars if they see kids up and around.”
He said the new law wouldn’t cause much of a change in how they enforce passenger safety laws.
– 30 – CNS 09-19-03