Osvaldo Rios was driving on the Long Beach Freeway with his 1-year-old daughter, Jessica, when he lost control of his Mercury Cougar and slammed into a big rig. Jessica, wearing a lap belt in the back seat but not strapped into a required child safety seat, died of head injuries when her side of the car took the brunt of the impact. The father told police he had removed the safety seat to make room for more passengers.
Parents worry about their kids' talking to strangers. They worry about the influence of violent movies, Marilyn Manson and the Internet. They worry about youth violence and crime. Then many of them get behind the wheel and put their children's lives at risk.
About 160 children died in motor vehicle crashes in California last year, and three-fourths were victims of safety lapses, negligence and outright recklessness by the drivers--often their own parents--of the cars in which they were riding, according to a computer analysis of California Highway Patrol records.
An examination of statewide crash reports, from neighborhood streets to interstates, found that mothers and fathers frequently failed to take the basic precautions with their most precious cargo.
They did not buckle them in or, for small children, use child restraint seats. They let them ride in front seats, sometimes facing signs reading: "WARNING! Children Can Be KILLED or INJURED by Passenger Air Bag." They drove too fast, ran red lights and broke other traffic laws with youngsters in their cars.
Adult drivers walk away unhurt from many crashes while children suffer fatal or serious injuries. In a typical case last year, a 2-month-old girl was riding on her father's lap when her mother fell asleep while driving and crashed on Interstate 5 in Camp Pendleton. The baby was thrown out of a Jeep Wrangler to her death. The parents survived.
"Somehow, we've got to better educate parents," said CHP Commissioner Dwight "Spike" Helmick. "They may walk out of a little fender bender, but that little baby being thrown around that car sustains a lot more injury. It's just carelessness, and it outrages me."
Prosecution of Careless Parents
Some police officers are urging a dramatic measure to compel the attention of feckless parents: filing criminal charges against mothers and fathers whose behavior contributes to a child's death. Many prosecutors have hesitated to pursue any but the most extreme cases, such as parents who drive drunk with children.
Safety officials say stronger laws may also be needed. They point to Kentucky, which operates a hotline for reporting the license plates of cars carrying unsecured children. Offending drivers are sent letters advising: "Please take the time to have your child safely restrained in your vehicle--someone else thought that your child's life was worth their time."
A few states--California is not one--prohibit children from riding in the front seat of a car equipped with air bags if a rear seat is available. Experts say the back seat is the safest place for children, whether or not cars have air bags.
California, with its strict seat-belt law and aggressive enforcement, ranks among the 10 states with the lowest child passenger death rate. Traffic fatalities have declined even as the state has seen its registered vehicles increase to 27.5 million and licensed drivers grow to 20.7 million.
Bucking the trend, deaths of vehicle occupants 14 and younger in California increased to 160 last year after three consecutive years of decline. There are signs of resumed progress this year, however: Fifty-four child occupants died during the first six months, down from 75 for the same period in 1998.
Still, traffic safety officials see a disturbing trend. While deaths of vehicle occupants 15 and older dropped 35% in California from 1990 to 1998, the decline for children under 15 was just 8%. Nationally, motor vehicle crashes remain the leading killer of children 1 and older, reports the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Children rely on adults to protect them, not to harm them," said Dr. Ricardo Martinez, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "These crash injuries are not just accidents; they are predictable and preventable."
51 Killed in Single-Vehicle Crashes
Among the findings of The Times' examination of reports of all child occupant fatalities in California for 1998:
* Of the 160 children who died, 122 were riding with drivers--usually parents--who engaged in some form of unsafe behavior. Fifty-one children died in single-vehicle crashes. Speeding, dangerous lane changes and inattention were often cited as factors.
* In 81 fatalities, children were not buckled in as required by law. In three dozen cases, drivers buckled themselves but not their child passengers.