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Campaign Launched to 'Boost' Car Safety for Kids

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WebMD Health News

Feb. 14, 2000 (Washington) -- Car safety doesn't end for children once they outgrow a child safety seat. In fact, a booster seat for older children can be a real lifesaver. Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater says that though Americans are generally trying to keep infants secured while traveling in their vehicles, the same cannot be said for those aged 4 to 8 years old.

"[W]e are putting our older children at unnecessary risk because booster seat use -- less than 7% -- is so low," said Slater at a Monday news conference. To promote boosters for those beyond safety seats but still too small for seat belts, Slater announced a $7.5 million national public awareness program. The campaign coincides with National Child Passenger Safety Week.

"You have to see it to understand it," said Slater as he demonstrated the proper technique for securing a group of youthful volunteers into boosters -- some of whom acknowledged they didn't always ride belted in.

Called "Don't Skip a Step," the education effort encourages parents to start with rear-facing seats for infants, then graduate to forward-facing models, but not to forget boosters for children between 40 and 80 pounds. According to the Department of Transportation, most state laws only require a seat belt up to age 3 or 4. Many parents then assume it's OK to restrain a child in an adult seat belt. "We don't know whether it will take a law or not. Most parents want to do the right thing, if they know," says Slater. Buckling up a small child in a seat belt may look deceptively safe, but it could be a deadly error.

"When children are prematurely graduated to adult safety belts from child restraint systems, the lap portion of the belt rides up over the abdomen. This places the child at risk for seat belt syndrome ... because the force of the crash is transferred to the soft abdomen and not to the hard bones," says Flaura Winston, MD, a pediatrician at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

Winston also says the shoulder portion of an adult belt won't fit children less than 4 feet 9 inches tall; thus many will either put the top portion of the belt behind them, or "submarine" out of the safety device completely in a crash.

Even though motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for young children, 30% of them ride without any kind of safety restraint, according to the National Safe Kids Campaign. Winston says she's also concerned that of those who are in seats or belts, only about half are properly restrained. It's not clear how many lives booster use might save, but Winston is currently looking for the answer in a study. About 600 infants per year die in U.S. car crashes, according to one national child safety organization.

Slater says the cost of the booster seats -- ranging from $20 to $80 -- probably isn't a major reason they're not being used. "We think it's more education than economics, but where it's economics as well, we've got the kind of partnership that will help us address that issue," he says.

Education may also be an issue for physicians who need to talk with parents about how best to protect children on the road. "It's long been the American Academy of Pediatrics' position that children in this age group needed to be in booster seats," says Winston.

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