Doctors' group pushes for new child safety seat standards in Maryland

Legislation is introduced to have state adopt recent federal guidelines

January 31, 2012|By Andrea K. Walker, The Baltimore Sun

A Maryland doctors' group is pushing legislation to bolster the state's child safety seat laws, a move designed to better protect toddlers from head, neck and spinal injuries during accidents.

The Maryland State Medical Society, also known as MedChi, wants the state to adopt recommendations made last year by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The recommendations include lengthening the amount of time young children have to stay in seats facing the rear of the car and raising the age that children should have to sit in the back seat.

The academy based its recommendations on research that found children were less likely to die or suffer severe damage under the stricter standards. Nearly 1,500 children nationwide die in car accidents annually.

"We want to comply with the federal guidelines because they have been measured and demonstrated to be the safest way to go," said Gene Ransom, MedChi CEO.

Maryland law doesn't specify when a child no longer has to face the rear. Instead, the state simply requires infants to sit in seats approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Pediatricians have typically told parents rear-facing car seats should be used until a child is 1 year old.

Legislation supported by MedChi and introduced in both houses of the General Assembly would require children up to age 2 to sit in rear-facing car seats. Research has found that children under age 2 are 75 percent less likely to die or face severe injuries if they are facing the rear.

Young children's heads are heavier and necks and spinal cords not as developed. If they sit facing the front of the car their heads may pull forward and injure their spines and even break their necks, medical experts say. When facing the rear in a crash the car seats keeps them stable.

Maryland now recommends that children under age 13 sit in the back seat of a car. The proposed legislation would make it a requirement.

Also under current law, children have to be 4 feet 9 inches tall and 65 pounds before they no longer have to sit in a safety seat. The new legislation would get rid of the weight requirement but keep the height requirement. A child has to be a certain height for the straps of car seat belt to cover a person correctly. Weight is not as big a factor

"You can be really chunky and short and still be at risk," said Fran Phillips, deputy director of public health for the Maryland Department of Mental Health and Hygiene.

Phillips said the department is still reviewing the legislation but would support most of it. Officials will further research the provision requiring 13-year-olds to sit in the back seat. Families with small cars and many children might find it hard to follow that part of the new law, she said.

"The sponsors are to be applauded for looking at additional protections we can put in place for children," Phillips said.

Sen. Jennie Forehand, a Montgomery County Democrat, who introduced the bill in the Senate, said it makes sense to keep up with the latest safety standards. "It's based on accident statistics; it's not something we just thought of in committee."

Del. Dana Stein of Baltimore County introduced the bill in the House. He has three children under age 5 and said he often goes to the AAP for the latest safety standards.

"Even though child safety has improved over the years, 1,500 children still are killed in car crashes every year," Stein said. "We could do better."

Ragina Averella, a spokeswoman for AAA of the Mid-Atlantic, said: "On the surface, the bill certainly looks like it would strengthen Maryland's existing child safety seat laws and it is something we would certainly consider supporting."

When the academy first introduced its newest recommendations last year, some parents said it would be hard to get a child to sit in the back seat when they'd been sitting in the front. It would also be hard to manage an active infant from the front seat if they're facing the other way, they said.

Courtney Gardner, a 45-year-old mother who lives in Northeast Baltimore, said she takes extra precautions with her two sons, ages 5 and 10. The 10-year-old is tall enough not to sit in a booster seat, but because he is so thin, she has him use one anyway.

Gardner owns a preschool, and she was talking with other parents about the new recommendations recently. All agreed they were smart changes, she said.

"Parents will have to put up with a little more fuss, but it's worth it if their children are safer," she said.

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