Can't wait until your kids turn 4 so you can stop wrestling them into their car seats? Under a proposed Florida law, you'd need to put up with the aggravation for another three years.
State legislators again will consider a bill, HB 151, that would require children to ride in a booster or car seat until they turn 8, or reach 4 feet, 9 inches tall.
While you might dread the whining if it's approved, child safety experts say even older elementary school-aged passengers belong in boosters until they are tall and heavy enough for safety belts to fit them properly. Young passengers' lives depend on parents hanging tough whether the law requires it or not, said Lorrie Walker, a Deerfield Beach-based training manager and technical advisor for Safe Kids Buckle Up program.
"If parents knew how violent a crash is, they would be horrified not to put their kids in restraints. Children can have back, spine and head injuries that can affect them for the rest of their lives," said Walker, whose organization certifies child passenger safety technicians to help consumers properly install car seats.
Studies consistently have shown seat use drops dramatically once youngsters are out of preschool. Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles records show that in 2009, the most current year available, about 22 percent of passengers ages 6 to 17 in non-injury accidents were in safety devices, compared with 95 percent of newborns up through age 5.
Among the 64 children age 6 and older killed in crashes that year, 61 percent were not in restraints. Another 2,104 unrestrained youngsters in that age group were injured.
Walker said many parents don't realize safety belts, designed to fit an average-sized adult, won't properly protect a much shorter and lighter average-sized child. Booster seats are the vehicular equivalent of a phone book on a dining room chair, raising a youngster up so the lap and shoulder belts lie properly across the knees and collarbone.
There are three basic styles: backless and high-backed seats, which use the car's belts; and combination seats, which have their own harnesses. All seat models must be crash-tested and approved by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Florida repeatedly has been chided by the feds and safety advocates for having among the weakest child passenger laws in the nation. Only two other states, South Dakota and Arizona, have no booster seat requirements. Floridians legally can put children in adult-sized seat belts beginning on their fourth birthday.
Boynton Beach mom Michele Nelson says staying safe is the law around her house. Her daughter and son — at ages 7 and 6, way beyond Florida's mandated car seat age — both ride in boosters and never have questioned it, she said.
"I think they were just happy to get out of the [harnesses] that clip in the middle," Nelson said. "I don't think they really have any friends who aren't using booster seats."
Jennifer Belyeu, an injury prevention specialist at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital in Hollywood, said children often insist on "big kid" seat belts when they outgrow their car seats, fussing about peer pressure or comfort. She suggests letting pint-sized passengers shop for their own boosters -- many come in snazzy colors or have features like cupholders.
The upcoming session will be the fourth consecutive time state Rep. Richard Steinberg, D- Miami Beach, has co-sponsored a booster seat bill. Similar legislation passed both the House and Senate in 2001 only to be vetoed by then Gov. Jeb Bush, who said it was "too intrusive."
Last year, the measure passed the Senate but never was heard by House committees. HB 151, at this point, also has not had a House committee hearing although it has multiple co-sponsors.
"Every year it doesn't pass, more kids die," Steinberg said.
Nelson doesn't buy another argument: That the proposed law, which applies to vehicles carrying fewer than 10 passengers, would inconvenience car pools, field trips and sports organizers, and tourists with kids.
When her daughter was part of a summer camp car pool two years ago, "we all made sure there were enough booster seats," Nelson said. She still carries a spare in her trunk, in case she has an additional young passenger.
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