February is National Child Passenger Safety (CPS) Month. Is your agency ready to educate and enforce? An effective and comprehensive traffic safety plan is not complete without a component that addresses child passenger safety. Although this month is dedicated to focusing on CPS, enforcement of child seat laws should be a daily part of an officer's patrol. Just as an officer or trooper is trained to observe license tag, inspection sticker, and seat belt violations, it should be a part of standard patrol practice to notice if children are properly restrained inside vehicles.
|Photograph by Patricia Goven|
Four Critical Questions
What do your officers need to look for when they initiate a CPS-related traffic stop or simply encounter a CPS issue in a nonviolation situation?
- What is the law? Ensure that your officers know the laws that govern child restraint in your state; they may be related to the child's age, weight, or a combination of the two. Some states even permit loopholes in CPS laws such as exemptions for children riding in taxis, children riding in the rear cargo areas of passenger vehicles, for children riding in out-of-state vehicles, and even mothers nursing babies. For an excellent reference on state laws, visit www.safekids.org.
- Is the child in an appropriate restraint system? Most infant seats accommodate children up to 20-25 pounds, most forward-facing child seats accommodate children up to 40 pounds, and most booster seats accommodate children up to 80 pounds. The forgotten child is the child over 40 pounds who should be in a booster seat but is more likely to wear a seat belt designed for adult bodies. Children one year of age and under, and less than 20 pounds, must always be secured in rear-facing seats in the back seat. Never place a rear-facing seat in the front seat where a front-mounted air bag is present.
- Is the child seat installed correctly? Although it takes an experienced technician to spot many of the less-common mistakes in child seat installation, any officer can check for obvious errors or omissions. Look for the following common errors: the child is not buckled into the harness but is merely sitting in the seat; the seat is not secured to the vehicle using the seat belt; the seat is obviously unstable and propped up on pillows or other material.
- Where did the parent get the seat? Experts caution against using secondhand child seats. Seats bought at garage sales or thrift shops could have been recalled or damaged, could be missing parts, or could have been in a previous crash. Any child seat that has been involved in a crash has done its job and should be immediately replaced; it is impossible to assess the stress it has endured and any undetectable damage it may have suffered.
For more information related to CPS, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people and click Child Passenger Safety.
The Trained Eye
The most effective officer for this type of enforcement is one who has completed the official National Standardized Child Passenger Safety Training course. This course is certified by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is 32 hours long, and is taught by a nationally certified instructor. The course includes classroom instruction followed by hands-on practice in installing several different seats in a variety of vehicles. Once a candidate successfully completes this training, he or she is considered a certified CPS technician and must be recertified every two years.
In addition to being an enhanced traffic safety asset, having a certified technician on your force can be an invaluable community policing tool. The positive, proactive officer will enhance the profile of the department by fostering an affirmative, helpful image of law enforcement. By educating parents and caregivers, whether during a traffic stop or at a community event such as a child seat check, officers are able to both enforce the law and immediately and directly affect the safety of the public. In particular, if your officers encounter a family with no child seat at all, and they advise they are unable to afford one, make sure you are able to direct that family to a resource where they can obtain a free or low-cost seat.
For more information on the availability of training classes in your area, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people and select Child Passenger Safety.
From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 2, February 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.