n Valentine's Day we think of the ones we love. That's why the traffic safety focus for February 13-19 will be on keeping our most precious passengers safe.
Child Passenger Safety Week this year will promote the proper use of booster seats, designed to provide crash protection for children age four to eight, or up to four feet nine inches tall. Observational surveys show that very few children in this age group are properly restrained.
Parents clearly understand the importance of child safety seats for infants and toddlers. Rear facing restraints for children under age one and forward facing seats with five-point harnesses for kids up to 40 pounds are widely used, although correct use remains a problem. How to secure the child restraint with the vehicle's safety belt, snugly fitting the harness straps on the child, and where the harness retainer clip goes (armpit level) can be confusing for parents. Still, surveys show-and fewer crash deaths for children demonstrate-that parents are getting the message and trying to secure infants and toddlers correctly.
Unfortunately, what to do once a child outgrows a toddler seat is not so readily apparent to caregivers. After age four, is a child too old for a baby seat? How many different kinds of belt positioning booster seats are there? When can a child be properly secured with an adult safety belt?
The answer to our first question is that a child over 40 pounds is probably ready for a big kid seat, one that will serve them until they are about eight years old or at least four feet nine inches tall. These seats are technically called belt positioning booster seats because that is what they do: elevate and position the child so that the adult seat belt will better fit them.
That leads us to the answer to our second question. There are basically two types of belt positioning booster seats for this age group. One has no back and works well where the vehicle seat has a high back that will provide head restraint and support to at least the top of the child's ears. The other type is a high back belt positioning booster, recommended for vehicles with low seat backs or no head restraint that would protect the child's head and neck.
An important point for both types of booster seats is that they are designed to work only with lap and shoulder belt combinations. For older vehicles with lap-only belts in the rear seat, other options are available including tethered harness or vests; retrofit lap and shoulder belt kits; or child safety seats on the market now that have harness systems rated to higher weights.
The answer to our last question is the most important for parents and caregivers to understand. Adult safety belts are designed to fit adults.
Proper fit of the safety belt system is essential if it is expected to provide protection in a crash. Adult safety belts simply do not fit young children. Belt positioning booster seats are designed to serve children who weigh more than 40 pounds, and perform well in crash events. They elevate the child, allowing the lap portion of the belt to fit low across the hips and the shoulder portion of the belt to fit comfortably across the child's chest and shoulder.
There is a simple test you can use to demonstrate to parents whether or not a child is best served by a belt positioning booster seat or is ready for the adult safety belt. Have the child sit in the vehicle seat upright (no slouching) with the child's back against the vehicle's seat back. If the child's knees bend comfortably over the front of the seat, buckle the child in the safety belt and see whether the lap portion fits low across the hips and the shoulder portion of the belt positions itself appropriately over the child's chest and shoulder.
Experience has shown that if the child's knees do not bend comfortably over the front of the seat, the child will tend to slouch down or perch on the seat edge allowing the lap portion of the belt to ride up on the abdomen, which could be dangerous in a crash. If the shoulder portion of the belt doesn't fit comfortably, the child may place the shoulder belt under the arm or behind the back, other actions that could cause injury.
February's Child Passenger Safety Week presents an opportunity for you to help close a gap in keeping young passengers safe. Make booster seat education a part of your civic club speeches and media outreach this month. Additional information is available from your state highway safety office or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Web site (www.nhtsa.gov).
Encourage enforcement by reviewing your state's child passenger safety law with your officers. If the law doesn't cover children who should be in booster seats, work to strengthen it. Many parents still look to what the law says to determine what is safe for their children. In some states, that is a mistake.
Recognize officers who have done an excellent job of educating parents and enforcing laws designed to keep kids safe. High visibility enforcement coupled with effective education works. Wouldn't it be great to save a young life simply by making sure the children we serve are buckled up properly? ■