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Monday, November 22, 2010
National Transportation Safety Board Calls for Booster Seat Laws
In September, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended that states to pass more comprehensive child restraint laws to cover children up to eight years of age. The NTSB cited Florida, which only requires child restraints for children up to the age of three, as having the weakest child restraint laws in the nation. The NTSB also called on twenty one states to pass legislation requiring the use of booster seats.
Automobile crashes are the leading cause of death for children from age three to fourteen. In 2008, 297 children under the age of four lost their lives in motor vehicle crashes. Of those 297 children, 32% were totally unrestrained.
Parents could potentially be placing their children at risk while driving. A study conducted in 2002 by State Farm Insurance and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia added weight to previous studies showing that 83% of children are graduating from child safety seats to adult seat belts too early.
The problem lies in the different ways that seat belts fit around an adult's body compared to the way they fit around a child. When properly belted in, the seat belt should fit low over a vehicle occupant's hips. In a crash, the belt will provide restraint by pushing back against the relatively hard surface of the occupant’s hip bones. If the belt were to sit higher across the soft tissue of the occupant's abdomen, it could cause significant damage to internal organs and could, in severe crashes, actually cut into the occupant's abdomen. Seat belts on children, with their small frames, tend to ride high over the child’s abdomen. The 2002 study refers to this as the "Seat Belt Syndrome" in children. The seat belt syndrome has contributed to abdominal and spinal injuries in children. The studies found that children between the ages of 3 and 9 were at greatest risk of seat belt syndrome. The problem is compounded by the way shoulder harnesses fit over children. Instead of sitting properly over a child’s shoulder, the shoulder harness tends to ride across their neck and rub against their face causing many to place the shoulder harness behind them.
The answer to this problem is quite simple but, for some reason, the word isn’t getting around. The studies show that once children outgrow their child safety seats, they should graduate to a booster seat. Booster seats raise the child’s body to a position that allows the seat belt to ride low over their hips the way they are designed. Booster seats can also help to properly position the shoulder harness so that it provides maximum protection. The American Academy of Pediatrics published guidelines that say children should remain in booster seats until they are 4'9" in height or, on average, from 9 to 11 years of age. Their website also has guidelines on the proper use of child restraints from infants to teens.
In spite of campaigns by the insurance industry and guidance from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), only 13 states and the District of Columbia have passed booster seat laws that comply with federal guidelines. There are modified booster seat laws in 25 states and 12 states have no child restraint seat laws at all for children beyond 4 or 5 years of age.
When considering a booster seat for your child, remember that all booster seats are not created equally. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) conducted crash tests and published a list of the best and worst booster seats that are currently on the market. The IIHS website also has pictures showing how lap belts and shoulder harnesses should fit to provide maximum protection. The best seats provide proper height adjustment for the lap belt and keep the shoulder harness away from the abdomen and over the shoulder where they belong. The IIHS also has a list of state laws regarding child restraints.
It is critically important to remember that keeping a child restrained in an adult seat belt is better than no restraint at all. The word about booster seats is slowly getting around and more and more parents are using them every year but the percentage of children in booster seats is still far too low.