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Strap your kids under 8 in booster seats or get ticketed

By J.J. Smith. Starting today Texas drivers can be ticketed or arrested if children younger than eight and shorter than 4 feet 9 inches tall aren’t strapped into booster seats or riding in car seats.

Since motor vehicle injuries are the leading cause of death of children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the State enacted the new law during the last legislative session to prevent child injuries and deaths across Texas.

Belt-positioning booster seats reduce the risk of injury for children ages 4 to 7 by 59 percent compared with youngsters restrained by only seat belts, according to CDC research.

A booster seat lifts a smaller child’s body to a position similar to an adult, which allows the seat belt to align properly. This directs crash impact on the skeleton instead of the abdomen or spine can prevent internal injuries and paralysis, said Dr. David Wesson, a pediatric surgeon who directs the trauma program at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston.

“There was a big gap in the previous law because there were a lot of kids who were too tall to require the booster seat. Many kids weren’t in any kind of seat belt,” said Dr. Wesson.“This law is designed to fill that gap and make sure kids are in a restraint that’s appropriate for their size.”

While the new law took effect in September, a nine-month grace period was established to give families time to become educated about and obtain required booster or safety seats, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS).

But beginning today, citations may now be given with fines starting at $25 for first-time offenders and increasing to $250 for subsequent infractions. Fees collected from violations will be used to provide booster seats to low-income families.

Texas was previously only one of six states without a booster seat law. The State only required safety seats for children younger than 5 and less than 3 feet tall.

The bill was filed during the last legislative session by State Sen. Judith Zaffirini of Laredo upon the urging of parents whose children had been killed or injured in car accidents.

“Parents of children whose necks were snapped, whose ribs were crushed and whose organs were damaged cried out to us,” she said. “We weren’t trying to punish anybody. We were trying to educate parents.”

State Rep. Ellen Cohen, a Houston legislator whose district includes the Texas Medical Center, co-authored the companion bill in the Texas House.

“In car crashes where children are restrained by only an adult seat, they are more likely to suffer severe head, spinal cord and internal injuries,” she said. “It’s just that one moment that can change a person’s entire life.”

“When you’re about 4 foot 9, you’re about the right size to sit all the way back in the seat and bend your knees at the edge,” said Barbara Crotty, childbirth and parenting education coordinator at The Woman’s Hospital of Texas. She’s also certified as a child passenger safety technician.

“When you’re eight, you have developed enough pelvis structure so that you are able to better withstand the stress from the lap belt.”

Crotty, also a registered nurse, concedes that some kids who graduated from safety seats under the old rules will “feel silly going back.” She suggests parents buy backless booster seat.

“It’s going to be easier as time goes on as they find out other kids are doing the same thing,” she said. “The great thing for the child is that they can get a better view because they’re up higher.”

According to DPS spokesperson Beth Warren, vehicle manufacturers design their products for adults – not kids – and they support keeping kids in the appropriate safety or booster seat until the child can properly wear the adult safety belt – typically when they reach 4’9” tall.

She advised once a child has reached eight years old, to know when they can wear an adult seat belt properly without a booster seat, use this simple test:

“Have your child sit on the vehicle seat, sitting all the way back, with their back straight against the back of the seat, and buckle the lap/shoulder belt over them. Then ask yourself:

1. Do their legs bend naturally at the knees over the edge of the seat?
2. Does the lap portion of the belt fit low over the hips and top of their thighs?
3. Does the shoulder portion of the belt fit across the center of their chest?

If the answer to any of these three questions is no, the child may be better protected in a booster seat.”

“A child in a poorly-fitting adult seat belt usually slumps down, allowing the seat belt to ride up into their abdomen or neck, which can cause severe injuries to the child’s neck and internal organs during a car crash,” she said.

“Although there is no law that prevents youngsters from sitting in the front seat of a vehicle, the safest place for a child in a car is in a rear seat, properly buckled into a child safety seat or a booster seat,” she continued.

“Air bags don’t replace child safety seats and may increase the risk of serious injury to children. Children younger than 13 should never ride in the front seats of vehicles with active passenger air bags. If you do have to transport a child in the front seat in an emergency – make sure the front seat is moved all the way back on the track, placing as much room as possible between the deployment zone of the air bag and the vehicle seat…but NEVER place a rear-facing safety seat on a front seat.”

“A final, but very important note: please read and follow the instructions in both the safety/booster seat owner’s manual and the vehicle owner’s manual.”

“Not all safety or booster seats fit the same in all vehicles, so you may have to try several before finding a good fit for your child and vehicle.”

For further information, contact the DPS or simply ask a law enforcement officer.

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