Remember the days when car seats for infants and children were considered an optional luxury, much like air bags have been in recent years?
Those were also the days when children suffered unnecessary injuries, many of them disabling or even fatal, in auto mishaps that for adults would have been little more than fender-benders.
Without safety restraints, children, with their light body weights, are easily thrown around in a vehicle during any mishap, even a sudden stop that does not result in an accident.
A decade ago -- Jan. 1, 1984 -- Maryland's child restraint law went into effect. Since then, the use of child safety seats in the state has risen from about 20 percent to around 80 percent. As a result, many children who would otherwise have been killed or maimed in accidents are alive and healthy today.
Safety seats for young children and seat belts for older youngsters reduce by half the chance of a child's dying in an auto mishap. One statistic dramatically underscores their value: In 1992, 15 children under the age of 10 died in traffic accidents in Maryland; 11 of them were not restrained by safety devices. Nationally, traffic safety experts estimate that the use of child safety seats prevented more than 180 deaths and 70,000 injuries in 1991, and that if all occupants 4 years old or younger were restrained, another 200 deaths and 20,000 injuries could be prevented each year.
It's worth noting that one of the objections that delayed the enactment of child restraint laws was the cost and inconvenience of safety seats. But that argument seems almost obscene in light of the deaths and injuries these laws have prevented. For families who do have trouble meeting the cost of a safety seat, the state sponsors loaner programs in every county. Last year, about 1,000 families took advantage of the program.
Maryland generally has good laws regarding child restraints. But there is still a small gap: Technically, children between the ages of 10 and 16 who are sitting in rear seats are not covered by seat belt laws. Legislation may well be introduced in the General Assembly to close that gap; if it is successful, Maryland would join a handful of states with strong safety laws fully covering children under 16.
This week is designated as National Child Passenger Safety Awareness Week. For Marylanders, the week can serve as a marker of how much difference a decade can make and a reminder that safety precautions really do pay off.