Bill would require booster seats up to age 8

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- One mother thinks requiring older children to ride in booster seats is an intrusion and an inconvenience for parents. Another wishes such a law had been in place the day her child died in a car crash.

Missouri lawmakers are weighing that conflict as they consider requiring booster seats for children up to 8 years old -- twice the age cited in current law, which requires children to be in safety seats until they turn 4, when they must wear seat belts.

The bill is backed by safety advocates, who say small children aren't properly protected with a seat belt and need booster seats until they grow into belts made to fit adults.

In Missouri, 20 children age 8 and younger were killed and 2,725 injured in motor vehicle crashes in 2004, traffic safety data shows. Many were not in car seats or booster seats.

"It's the number one reason why we see children beyond 1 year of age in the emergency room," said Phyllis Larimore, car seat program coordinator for Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. "When you look at how easy it is to prevent, it just doesn't make any sense not to do it."

Laura Boatright said a legal requirement would help parents like her, who struggle to keep their children safe. Boatright's daughter Anna was killed in a car crash when she was 2 1/2 and riding with just a seat belt in the back seat.

Anna was big for her age, and her husband decided a booster seat wasn't necessary because she was about the size of a 4-year-old, she said. So Boatright, of Independence, is sharing her story, and pushing for a law with more than just an age requirement.

"If there are any other parents out there arguing about this, I believe this bill would help put that argument to bed and put that child into something that was more safe for her or him to be in," she said. "I believe my child would be alive today if that bill had been passed 10 years ago."

But other parents, such as Cindy Hassler, worry about the inconvenience. Her daughter, Jennifer, used a booster seat until she was 5 1/2 years old and starting kindergarten. Hassler says the child was ready to move on, and lugging the seat around to school and soccer practice was a pain.

The booster seat legislation would be especially challenging for families that drive other people's children to or from sporting events or school field trips, Hassler said.

"That is a car pooling issue," she said. "If you have other kids, you would have to get with their parents to get their booster seat. It is definitely an inconvenience."

Plus, she said, older children would find the requirement "demeaning." Her daughter, now 6, rides in the back seat of the Cole County family's Ford Explorer, which her mother finds perfectly safe, especially as the vehicle has adjustable seat belts that fit her well.

Those pushing for the tougher law say parents need to swallow the inconvenience in the name of saving lives.

"That's just a burden that parents will need to accept," said sponsoring Sen. Chris Koster, R-Harrisonville, who has no children. "There's no way for police to say in the midst of a traffic stop, 'It's OK for you to disobey this law."'

The idea of requiring older children to sit in booster seats has been proposed at the Capitol for years but never passed.

Supporters hope this year is different. They note several things working in their favor -- such as Republican sponsors in both chambers, including some rural lawmakers, and support from Gov. Matt Blunt. Many rural lawmakers historically fight placing more requirements on motorists, such as tougher enforcement of the seat belt law.

The Senate proposal would require children 4 and older to be in booster seats until they turn 8, unless they reach either 80 pounds or grow taller than 4 feet 9 inches before then, when they can switch to seat belts. The measure recently passed the Senate 31-1. The House is expected to consider similar legislation.

Thirty-four states have some kind of booster seat law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius signed a law Monday enacting similar restrictions to Missouri's proposal. Though the age, weight and height requirements vary, Missouri's proposed changes would follow the trend of many other states adding specific height and weight restrictions and be in line with National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommendations, NCSL said.

Missouri could earn about $850,000 in federal grants with passage of such a law. Half of the money could be used to buy booster seats for poor families, and the rest would go to help with education, training of car seat inspectors and for law enforcement, Missouri Department of Transportation officials said. Families can buy a booster seat for $20, advocates say.

Hassler would prefer legislators focus their efforts on making school buses safer.

"They need to leave some of the safety issues up to parents and let the parents take those risks," Hassler said.

But Boatright, a paralegal, said it will take a stronger law to make people comply.

Laws "are there to help settle arguments between family members when there is a discrepancy or misunderstanding regarding who needs to be in what seat," she said.

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