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Booster seats save lives. It’s as simple as that. The law requires, and common sense dictates, that infants and toddlers need a special seat in the car to protect them in case of an accident.
Minnesota law states that children under the age of four must be restrained in an appropriate car safety seat. But magically on each child’s fourth birthday, the car seat disappears because the child is now old enough to sit anywhere in the car and use any restraint available. According to safety experts, this notion is ridiculous.
"Safety belts, like air bags are designed for adults. Passengers need to be five feet tall before seat belts and shoulder harnesses fit properly," Carol Carmody, Acting Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) told the Journal. Carmody is helping to get out the word that booster seats can save lives.
It does sound absurd. We have a law to protect the most vulnerable in our society, the youngest, but once children reach the age of four we no longer protect them adequately. We put them in the back seat and strap them in with a seat belt and then pat ourselves on the back for being conscientious and safety minded. Unfortunately, the law has let our little ones down, and so have we if we think that a seat belt is going to protect our child in an accident.
Autumn Alexander Skeen of Walla Walla, Washington, is a booster seat advocate. She is also a mom who’s four year old son Anton died after being ejected from a car during an accident in 1996.
"I believed that the law made it safe, and if I believed, then others did too," Skeen said in a phone interview. "First and foremost, what I need to do is warn other parents that strapping a child into an adult seat belt is a lie! And the consequences are irreversible."
The problem begins with the simple fact that automobile seat belts are made for adults. They are tested for adults and they are safe for adults. However, a child strapped into a too large seat belt can very easily be thrown out of the belt during a collision. Anton Skeen was thrown from the car and crushed in the accident, and yet his seat belt was still buckled.
"Three out of four of those thrown from a car will not survive the experience," Skeen told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation during a recent hearing. "We have to stop the body count, and booster seats can make the difference."
Booster seats very simply change the geometry of the belt fit. They elevate the child so the seat belt and shoulder harness fit properly across the shoulder and hips. This also helps prevent another danger which the medical community has taken to calling ‘seat belt syndrome’. On a small child the adult lap belt rides up over the stomach and the shoulder strap cuts across the neck. In a crash, the seat belt can cause serious and even fatal injuries.
Skeen brings a mother’s personal anguish to the fight for booster seat education.
In her Senate testimony, Skeen said, "It has been said that "if only" are the two saddest words a human can say. No truer words are these as far as my life is concerned. If only I hadn’t overcorrected that vehicle that day. If only Anton would’ve been in a booster seat. It’s bad enough to lose your child to death when there was nothing you could do. But believe me, it is a bottomless anguish when help was out there, and you didn’t have it."
Skeen has teamed up with Boost America in order to educate parents to the advantages of booster seats.
Boost America with a $30 million commitment from Ford Motor Company is partnering with names like Toys "R" Us, Will and Jada Pinckett Smith, Nickelodeon’s Blues Clues, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the United Way to get the word out to kids and adults that "Booster Seats are Cool!" They help keep kids safe, and also help them see better.
At the kick-off of Boost-America, Ford Motor Company President and CEO Jacques Nasser said, "As many as three out of four parents probably are using the wrong safety device for their children, including placing them in adult safety belts that do not protect them properly. That’s an alarming number. We are committed to doing everything we can to encourage the safety of all our passengers."
"We pay a lot of lip service to family values in this country, but when it comes down to it, convenience always wins," Skeen said.
And statistics back up that statement. Nationally 88% of parents and caregivers have heard or read about the advantages of booster seats, but only 21% use them. The leading reason not to use a booster seat, "they are too big."
Misconceptions abound. Nearly three quarters (71%) mistakenly believe it is safe to place children under the age of eight in a vehicle with just a regular safety belt.
Size is more important than age when determining the need for a booster seat. Most children outgrow the convertible child safety seats at about 40 lbs. From 40 to 80 lbs and about five feet tall, children should be in a self-positioning booster seat. If a child cannot sit with their backs straight against the seat back cushion and knees bent over the seat edge, then they are not big enough for an adult safety seat.
The Minnesota Connection
Minnesota requires that infants through age four be in a child safety seat. The seat belt law covers all occupants in the front seat and children ages 3-10 in the back seat. The law does not require booster seats and completely ignores children 11 and up. According to SAFE KIDS, an organization that conducted the most comprehensive analysis of our nation’s child occupant protection laws, Minnesota earns a "D" when it comes to laws protecting our kids.
However, we do fare a little better than the national average when it comes to our personal decision to use booster seats to protect our children (92% of Minnesotans surveyed have heard or read of the benefits of booster seat use). Still only 30% actually use them. The national average of use is at a disappointing 21%.
In Fillmore County we have people like Tom Kycek with the Sheriff Department’s Safe and Sober Campaign and Violet Kopperud with the Public Health Department leading the effort to get the word out on booster seats.
"Working together with the Public Health Department we can simply reach and educate more people,” Kycek explained. “The key ingredient for success in a program like Boost America is education.
Kopperud, who is a state certified instructor, agrees. "Parents and caregivers need to be aware of proper installation and use of booster seats,” she said. So why isn’t there a law requiring parents to boost their children?
“Think about what you know about the law making process in this nation,” Kopperud interjected. “Bills start out looking good, but then they are rewritten and watered down. The next thing you know they are completely different from how they started."
Unfortunately, in this case it is our children who are paying the price.
\As we prepare to take to the roads for vacation this summer, let’s remember to service the engine, make sure the tires are good, pack enough bug spray, and boost our children. Booster seats save lives!
On May 19th, there will be a clinic at the Elementary School in Preston. It is free and open to the public. Please call the Public Health Department at 507-765-3898 for an appointment. There are some seats available to those who meet income qualifications.
Mary Jergenson is a mother of a nearly four year old son. This story has personal significance to her. "Saving one child is not enough, I want them all saved. I can’t imagine having to tell my little boy that a friend o