Study: Seat Safety Laws Inadequate


Thursday, February 8th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


WASHINGTON (AP) — Just 2 1/2 weeks ago, Dwaine Lape was standing over two hospital beds, watching his grandson and granddaughter struggle to breathe on respirators. Had Zoe and Brendon been in child safety seats, maybe they wouldn't have suffered so, Lape thinks.

``To see something like that, it hurts your heart,'' said Lape, 49, of Dexter, Mo. ``No one can say for sure that if they were in booster seats it could have been different, but if we have an opportunity of maybe not causing such great internal injuries, then we ought to do it.''

Lape was bearing witness to his family's personal tragedy in the hope that other families would put their little ones in child safety seats. Actually, his son-in-law and daughter were following Missouri law when they put seat belts on 6-year-old Brendon and 4-year-old Zoe.

The state law, he said, is inadequate. And according to a new study by the National Safe Kids Campaign, a child advocacy group, he's right.

Most states do not have adequate laws to protect children riding in vehicles, a failure that may contribute to thousands of youngsters being killed or injured each year in traffic accidents, the study released Thursday says.

Heather Paul, executive director of the campaign, announced a new five-year effort to change laws across the country and possibly institute a federal standard to consistently protect child passengers. ``Our laws are simply not in sync with what we know saves lives,'' she told a news conference.

Robert Wall, a police officer from Fairfax County, Va., said the laws may be inconsistent but a car crash is the great equalizer.

``The law of the land has loopholes and gaps,'' he said. ``But the law of physics is a law that has no gaps, has no exceptions and has a very stiff penalty.''

The group's survey examined child safety restraint laws in all 50 states and the District of Columbia and found that many states allow children to ride completely unrestrained in the back seat, while others like Missouri allow children to ride in nothing more than a seat belt designed for an adult.

``Most of the laws were written in the '80s, and they have not been revisited enough by state legislatures,'' said Paul. ``We know that a law alone does not impact behavior, ... but at least, we should start with a law that is the cornerstone.''

Statistics suggest that with or without laws, about three in ten children ages 4 and under ride without any restraint at all and of those children who are buckled up, four of five are not restrained correctly.

Each year in the United States, about 1,800 children under age 14 die in motor vehicle crashes, and more than 274,000 are injured, according to data from the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration.

Lape was not in the car on Jan. 21, when it was broadsided by another vehicle. The lining of Zoe's intestines were severed, and doctors had to remove about 10 inches of her small intestine and eight inches of her large intestine. Brendon suffered two punctured lungs, cracked ribs, and a lacerated spleen. Doctors expect them both to recover. Their parents' injuries were much less serious.

The Safe Kids Campaign rated each state and its laws with a 100-point system and then assigned the states a grade like children get on their report card. Twenty-four states including Missouri received an F, and 18 plus the District of Columbia received a D.

``These harsh grades reflect the reality that too many states allow adults to improperly protect children,'' Paul said.

California scored the only A for having enacted detailed statutes, which go so far as to specify the need for age- and size-appropriate restraints, such as booster seats, for children 4 to 5 years old.

The states were graded on whether they require age-appropriate child restraints and proper safety seat adjustments, and have penalties for parents or guardians who fail to comply, among other criteria.

The state laws also were compared to a model law designed by the group, which advocates the use of safety seats for all children up to 8 years old and those weighing roughly between 40 and 80 pounds.

The study only looked at the language of the laws, not how they're enforced or whether the rate of deaths and injuries correlate in each state.

Safe Kids is a nonprofit group comprised of parents, teachers, health care providers, police and others and its goals are to educate the public and prevent childhood accidents and injuries.

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On the Net:

National Safe Kids Campaign: http://www.safekids.org

National Traffic Highway Safety Administration: http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/