For more than a decade, new parents have flocked to Deborah Baer's home, where the obstetric nurse may teach dozens of them a week how to properly install car seats for their children.
They hear about her through the grapevine, call her up and soon they are getting private car seat lessons in her Pikesville driveway.
Yesterday, she demonstrated for an assembled crowd how to use car booster seats for older children - and, in turn, how to comply with one of a series of new laws that goes into effect today.
The law, passed by the 2002 General Assembly, requires that all children younger than age 6, regardless of weight, or who weigh 40 pounds or less, regardless of age, be in a safety seat while riding in the car. For example, a 7-year-old who weighs 37 pounds or a 3-year-old who weighs 42 pounds would be required to use some kind of safety seat.
Under the old law, children who reached age 4 and weighed 40 pounds could sit on a regular seat - as long as they wore a seat belt. The new law will not apply to children riding in vehicles registered in other states.
"Unfortunately, there are too many people out there with children in their cars who are not safe," first lady Kendel Ehrlich said at a news conference to promote awareness of the law.
Violators may be fined $25, but the infraction is not a moving violation. Those who receive a ticket can have the fine waived if they buy a booster seat and bring the receipt to court.
Children older than 4 typically fit in what is called a booster seat, which raises them enough for the regular shoulder harness to more ably protect them from injury in a crash. The seats can be purchased for as little as $15, but various agencies will make them available at no cost to those who can't afford one.
"Be sure your kids are in booster seats, your grandkids are in booster seats and everyone you know spreads the word," said Deputy Transportation Secretary Trent M. Kittleman.
While the law requires the seats only up to age 6, child-safety advocates urge parents to keep their children in them until age 8 or 10, when the child is large enough to fit into the seat belt properly. The problem with seat belts, Baer said, is that they were designed for men who are an average of 5 foot 9 and 165 pounds.
"There's no way a parent would send a child to school in the morning in [the parent's] ... clothes," she said. So parents shouldn't put their children in grown-ups' seat belts, either.
Motor vehicle crashes are the top cause of death for children younger than 14. Fatality rates have declined for children younger than 4, but have been unchanged for children ages 5 to 9, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Brandon Culpepper, a sales associate at the Baby Depot inside the Annapolis Burlington Coat Factory, said he has seen sales of booster seats - which in his store range from $40 to $80 - increase "quite a bit" in recent days.
"In the past week, we've been selling more of the booster seats than the infant car carriers" - the usual top seller, he said.
Another new law that has gotten a lot of attention will significantly reduce penalties for seriously ill Marylanders who are caught smoking marijuana if they can convince a court they have a medical need. They would face a $100 fine and no jail time.
After much debate, the House and Senate passed the bill, and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed it into law despite lobbying from the White House to veto it.
"The net effect is for people suffering from terminal diseases, if they use marijuana, they have a lot less fear of going to jail," said Del. Dan K. Morhaim, a Democrat from Baltimore County and a co-sponsor of the bill.
The very ill have said that using the drug helps alleviate nausea and allows them to keep food down.
Morhaim said he is troubled by how the sick will obtain the drug if they decide they need it. "I don't like the fact that people are still going to have to go out on the street to get it," he said. But the legislature could not legalize marijuana, he said, because possessing it violates federal law.
Other new laws
Also in effect today are laws that guarantee mothers the right to breast-feed in any public place; make it illegal to drive within 12 hours after being arrested for drunken driving; and make it easier to obtain emergency psychiatric care for people if they are acting dangerously.
Some of the Maryland laws that take effect today:
Requiring children younger than age 6 to ride in a safety seat or booster seat.
Reducing the penalty for possessing marijuana for medical purposes to a $100 fine.
Designating the thoroughbred as the state horse.
Authorizing Somerset County to negotiate with companies interested in bringing fast ferry service to the lower Eastern Shore.
Increasing the fine for identity theft from $5,000 to $25,000.
Changing the definition of stalking to make it easier to get convictions.
Requiring sex offenders to notify the state if they legally change their names.
Making it illegal to drive within 12 hours after being arrested for drunken driving.
Guaranteeing mothers the right to breast-feed infants in any public or private place.
Prohibiting local governments from adopting ordinances that make it illegal to park more than one motorcycle in a metered parking space.
Making cruel treatment of a child grounds for absolute divorce.
Source: Maryland Department of Legislative Services via the Associated Press
Free booster seats
For people who can't afford booster seats, free ones are available from:
Baltimore City Health Department: 410-361-9130
Maryland Kids in Safety Seats: 800-370-SEAT