Giving kids a boost

Safety: Children ages 4 to 6 are too big for car seats, too small for traditional seat belts.

March 20, 2002

IF YOU COULD inoculate your child against the No. 1 killer of American children, you'd do it, wouldn't you? And even if you didn't want to, the law requires that children be inoculated against an array of life-threatening diseases before they can start school.

But the primary killer of children in this country isn't an illness, it's automobile accidents: About 33 kids under the age of 10 die each week in car crashes, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. No shot in the arm would have protected those children, but a measure of protection was available in the form of a car seat, or a booster seat for older children.

Maryland law requires that infants and children under age 4 be restrained in child safety seats while riding in cars. Nationwide, such laws have caused a significant decline in the number of very young children killed or injured in auto accidents.

Maryland law also requires that anyone 4 or older wear a seat belt. So, everyone's buckled up safe and sound, right? Wrong.

Wrong, at least, for those children ages 4 through 6 or 7, who have outgrown the car seat but are too short to be properly belted in by seat belts designed for grown-up passengers. When they put on a standard three-point seat belt, the chest restraint hits them at neck level, which can cause neck and spinal cord injuries in an accident; the lap belt crosses the stomach, threatening internal organs.

The solution is a simple, lightweight booster seat that elevates a child so that the belts fit properly. Many families use them, but, sadly, far too many do not.

In Annapolis last week, a bill that would require booster seats for children ages 4 through 6 sailed through the Senate. A vote is expected in the House this week, and it's hard to imagine that there could be much opposition.

Unlike controversial laws governing adult behavior - mandatory motorcycle helmets, for example - those that apply to children protect citizens too young to make rational choices of their own. This interim "booster" step is important to the safety of 200,000 or so young Marylanders; the legislature has an obligation to make it the law.

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