- The Washington Times - Monday, March 25, 2002

ANNAPOLIS Christine Guarino is convinced that a booster seat saved her 5-year-old son.
In February 1999, Mrs. Guarino took her van to the dealership for a tuneup. Someone there pointed out that her son Stephen, who weighed 43 pounds, was a bit too big for his car seat. That day, she converted it to a booster.
The next day, Mrs. Guarino, 36, of Germantown, had just picked up Stephen from kindergarten when a dump truck blew through a stop sign, crashing into the van's passenger door.
All four air bags deployed. The impact peeled open the van, bending back the bench seat on which Stephen was sitting.
When the truck driver helped Mrs. Guarino out of the van, she was covered in blood and glass.
"I was afraid to look in the back seat," she said, "because I didn't think Stephen would be there."
The boy had some cuts and a concussion from a window that shattered, but otherwise he was fine and still upright in his booster seat.
Only 10 percent of children in the age and size range for booster seats use them, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Some Maryland lawmakers want to make it the law.
Legislation sponsored by Delegate William Bronrott, Montgomery Democrat, would require children to ride in booster seats until their seventh birthday.
The bill would expand a law that mandates that children 4 and younger ride in car seats. The penalty for a violation of the existing child-safety-seat law is $25.
"Common sense and studies have shown that when children are buckled safely in cars, they're safer when accidents happen," said Justin McNaull, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "This doesn't change when they're older than 4."
Highway crashes are the leading cause of death for children ages 4 to 8. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 3,500 children in this age range died from 1994 to 2000 while riding in motor vehicles.
The legislation is backed by children's and safety groups, including AAA, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Maryland chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Maryland State Police. The bill's sponsors said no one testified against it.
Proponents say boosters are necessary to place small children's bodies so they can use seat belts that have been designed for adults. Without the boosters, seat-belt straps may line up across a child's neck or at a vulnerable part of the torso.
In a crash, the belts may choke a child or cause internal injuries. According to the NTSB, children restrained solely by seat belts are more than three times as likely to be injured than those using car seats or boosters.
Booster seats cost $20 to $30 and can be purchased at stores such as Target and Toys "R" Us. They are not strapped into a passenger seat, but sit beneath a child, who then uses the existing seat belts.
They are often plastic and come with or without backs. Some car seats for infants and toddlers are built so they can be converted into boosters.
The Senate unanimously passed matching legislation March 15, but the House bill is pending.
A national movement to mandate booster seats started several years ago in California and Washington state. Five more states passed similar legislation in the past year, and Virginia and the District are considering similar bills this year.
A year ago, the Maryland Senate and a House committee approved legislation that would have required boosters for children 8 and younger. The measure died in the full House, largely on concerns it was excessive and unfair to out-of-state drivers.
If passed this year, the legislation would become effective Oct. 1, 2003, for vehicles registered in Maryland. It would not apply to cars passing through the state until two years after that long enough, Mr. Bronrott said, for other states to pass similar measures.
Twenty years ago, the use of car seats for newborns and toddlers was 10 percent, he said. But during the 1980s, all 50 states and the District enacted safety-seat laws. Their use has jumped to nearly 90 percent.
"We want to follow that same formula for success," Mr. Bronrott said.
Added Delegate Adrienne Mandel, Montgomery Democrat and a grandmother of two: "We don't want to wait for tragedies to happen."

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