- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 25, 2001

Children too old for child safety seats but too young to be fully protected by seat belts need specially designed booster seats to protect them in automobile wrecks, witnesses told a Senate panel yesterday.

Current seat belts can either fail to restrain the children or cause internal injuries, medical and industry experts testified.

"Car crashes are the number one cause of death in this country among children ages 14 and under," said Sen. Peter G. Fitzgerald, the Illinois Republican who chairs the Senate commerce subcommittee on consumer affairs. "It's alarming to me that so many states are failing to provide even the most basic passenger protections for our children."

The consumer affairs subcommittee is considering whether federal legislation could increase use of booster seats or similar restraints.

The Senate hearing follows a recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study that found widespread neglect in protecting children 4-to-8 years old in automobile accidents. The study found that 90 percent of children under 4 years old are properly protected by riding in child safety seats in the back seats of automobiles.

However, the booster seats that could protect children from 4 years old to as much as 12 years old are used to protect only 10 percent of the children, NHTSA said.

Booster seats refer to removable seats that elevate children enough to make seat belts fit properly across their shoulders and laps. Generally, they look like the seats used to help children reach the table at restaurants. Without the boosters, children can either slide through the seat belt straps or suffer the brunt of a collision to their internal organs.

The federal government recommends that children between 40 and 80 pounds and shorter than 4-feet 9-inches always use them. Many states have set up fitting stations at health centers or in police, sheriff's or fire stations where parents can have proper installation and fitting of booster seats demonstrated to them. Tom Baloga, president of booster seat manufacturing company Britax Child Safety Inc., testified that for most children under 10 years old, their hip bones often are too underdeveloped to absorb the shock of an accident when they slam into seat belt restraints.

In a 30 mph crash, "the child will suffer 'lap belt syndrome,' which means severe internal injuries including spinal column separation and paralysis," Mr. Baloga said. "This happens if the child is too small for the adult belt and the lap belt rides up on the abdomen."

Only three states Arkansas, California and Washington have passed booster-seat laws. Twenty other states are considering them.

Washington's state law was the first, in part because of the efforts of Autumn Alexander Skeen, a mother whose 4-year-old son, Anton, was killed in a car accident in 1996. The boy was strapped into an adult seat belt but slid out between the straps on impact and into the median of the road, where his mother's car rolled over him and killed him.

Mrs. Skeen's promotion of a booster-seat law led to "Anton's law," which requires that children in Washington between 4 and 6 years old, or who weigh 40 to 60 pounds, be secured in booster seats or similar devices.

At the hearing yesterday, Mrs. Skeen said, "I realize, however, one mother's broken heart alone is not enough to change a nation's behavior, but Anton's death was no anomaly. Some 500 children in Anton's age group bloody the roadsides of America and die. Thousands more are hurt for life."

Automobile manufacturers have organized awareness campaigns on booster seats. Ford Motor Co. plans to give away 500,000 seats. Nissan has sponsored a public service campaign for minority communities. General Motors established mobile fitting stations in every state.

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