Amendment deals blow to hopes for car-seat bill

Measure to widen use probably dead this year

March 17, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

A child car-safety proposal widely expected to pass the House of Delegates fizzled suddenly yesterday after a last-minute amendment effectively neutralized the bill.

"I think it's extremely unfortunate that it happened," said Del. William A. Bronrott, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the legislation. "It's a very serious setback for children's safety."

The original bill would have required drivers in Maryland to put passengers 8 and younger and weighing less than 80 pounds in car safety seats. The current law, which took effect in 1984, is limited to children up to age 4 and weighing up to 40 pounds.

Bronrott said about 10 percent of children who would have been affected by the bill are strapped into booster seats now. Violators of the law would have faced a $25 fine.

A similar version of the bill has been passed by the Senate. The House Commerce and Government Matters Committee had approved it 16-2. The measure, which would have affected about 240,000 children, was backed by health organizations, automobile safety groups and the state police.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend wrote a letter urging the bill's passage, noting that the primary killer of children is unintentional injury. Within that category, car crashes are the leading cause of accidental death, her letter said.

Prospects for the bill looked good to Bronrott until he got to the House chamber yesterday morning and saw an amendment by Del. Dana Lee Dembrow, a fellow Montgomery Democrat who said he thought the idea would discourage drivers from other states who lacked booster seats from coming to Maryland.

His amendment called for the bill not to take effect until two states adjacent to Maryland adopted the same law, until the state started giving out the safety seats for free or until the state offered tax credits of at least $25 for people who bought them.

To illustrate his criticisms, Dembrow had House staff members display a map of the country that showed Maryland as the sole state to have such a law. (Washington and California have similar laws limited to children up to age 6 and weighing up to 60 pounds.)

An arrow showed how cars would skirt around Maryland to avoid fines.

That prospect appeared to trouble some delegates, particularly those from Prince George's County, who pointed out that Washington drivers would risk fines in Maryland.

After the amendment passed by a handful of votes, House members sent the bill back to committee, which probably means it is dead for this General Assembly session.

Bronrott, who has worked on child-safety policy since the early 1980s, expressed disappointment, but said the bill would be back next year. In any case, he said, he is glad citizens heard the debate.

"I hope every parent within earshot of this legislature will do the right thing," he said. "One day this will be our law."

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