Autumn Alexander Skeen is a writer in Walla Walla, Wash., who is trying to convince her state Legislature that older children--roughly from 4 to 8--should be required to ride in specially made booster pads that improve the fit of adult lap-shoulder belts. Similar legislation is pending in California.
Skeen's 4-year-old son, Anton, was killed in a 1996 crash on an interstate in the Washington mountains. She was driving. Anton, wearing a seat belt, was sleeping in the front of the family's SUV, which had no air bag. Skeen's car flipped three times, and while her seat belt held her, Anton was thrown from the vehicle because the adult belt was too loose for his small size. Times reporter RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR spoke with Skeen.
When I came to, I remember the wind and sand blowing over me. I heard somebody saying, "Get her in the ambulance." I said, "I can't go, we've got to get Anton." I vaguely remember someone in the distance saying, "There are no other survivors here," as I was pushed into the ambulance. I was thinking, "I can't believe this . . . this doesn't happen to people like me."
The state patrol found Anton's seat belt still fastened. The seat belt didn't hold him because he was not big enough. The ejection killed him. I just loved that boy.
I'm an older mother. I was 35 when I had him. He was a very smart and joyful child. Never in my life had I run up against anything so hard as his death. Death is not negotiable. You cannot plead it back. You cannot bargain. With time, so many landmarks come and go . . . I watch kids go off to school and I just die again.
The first question any parent asks is, "Why me?" I am an educated woman. I knew the laws. I led a good life. You think you're somehow guaranteed protection.
I have been through a lot of therapy, trying to assign the appropriate amount of blame. I take some of the responsibility. But there's enough to go around. The law was ineffectual. It said it was all right to put him in a seat belt. If the law had just given me some guidance: "At 45 pounds, this child will not stay in a lap-shoulder belt"--no doubt I would have run out and done something.
I'm very angry. I see the limitation on the car seat laws. Their purpose is not being met, which is to save kids' lives. They save lives from infancy to the fourth birthday, but after that, you're on your own.
Designs of the cars need to take equal consideration of the needs of children. The car manufacturers have got to go one step further toward social responsibility. If a lap-shoulder belt is insufficient for children, then why don't booster seats come with cars? It should be as important as the cigarette lighter. Why couldn't this elementary piece of equipment be included?
There is just no parent who wants to feel like I feel.
The only real miracle in this is that my husband and I have pulled together in this horror. This was his only son. But he was able to go out there and walk the accident scene himself and see what happened. I was terrified. I wouldn't have blamed him a bit if he had wanted to take it out on me. But you know what he said? "If we die, Anton dies again." That was just the greatest mercy out of this. He knew I would never do anything to jeopardize my child.
Every single day when I walk to the post office, I see parents whizzing by with the littlest kids in the front seat. Every time I go out, I have to suppress this desire to go up to complete strangers and scream at them, "Put that child in the back seat!" There is nothing worse than the recriminations after losing a child. The anguish is just too great.