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Behind the Wheel

Child Seat Law to Get Stricter

Starting Jan. 1, children must be 6 years old or weigh 60 pounds before they can graduate from car seats.


When California's new child car seat law goes into effect on Jan. 1, Maria Iraheta will need to buy not only a second car seat, but also a bigger vehicle.

She's managed to squeeze her 4-year-old son's child safety seat into her tiny Chevy truck. But now that her 5-year-old daughter will have to start using a safety seat again, she's in a quandary about what to do.

"There's not enough space in my truck to put another car seat. We can buy another car seat, but we don't have the money to change cars," said Iraheta of North Hills, a baby-sitter whose husband works as a gardener.

Iraheta is not alone in facing a New Year's dilemma. A more stringent child seat law is undoubtedly safer but it may be costly, inconvenient and difficult for parents--particularly those whose children have "graduated" to standard seat belts.

Current law requires children to ride in a car seat or booster seat that meets federal safety standards until they are at least 4 years old and weigh at least 40 pounds. As of Jan. 1, the law will require children to use such devices until they are at least 6 years old or weigh at least 60 pounds.

Scofflaws will be hit harder too. First-offense fines jump from $50 to $100; second offenses from $100 to $250. Last year in California, 9,398 tickets were written for safety seat violations, a number that is expected to rise in 2002.

Law enforcement officials and child safety advocates say the change is overdue, since motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of unintentional injury-related deaths nationwide, annually killing nearly 1,800 children 14 and younger and injuring more than 274,000 others.

Nationwide, only 5% of 4- to 8-year-olds ride in booster seats, according to the National SAFE KIDS Campaign. About 30% of American children ride unrestrained and, of those who are buckled up, four out of five are improperly restrained.

Safety seats protect children's fragile bodies better than seat belts alone, safety experts say. Booster seats help bigger children ride high enough so that seat belts restrain them around the shoulder and chest, instead of riding up on the neck or head.

Indeed, a 4-year-old girl was killed and her 1-year-old sister critically injured this month when the car their mother was driving hit a tree in Northridge. If the older child had been in a safety seat, instead of using a seat belt that was tucked under her arm, the outcome might have been different, said LAPD Officer Norm Kellems, one of the few law enforcement officials in the state who is a child passenger safety instructor.

The California Highway Patrol considers the stricter law so important that it secured a $525,000 federal grant to buy commercials on English- and Spanish-language radio stations during commute hours to publicize the change, said CHP spokesman Steve Kohler. Free public service announcements, in contrast, might have been broadcast only in the middle of the night.

Other law enforcement agencies will join the effort to publicize the new law.

Los Angeles Police Department officers will inform parents of the new law at checkpoints set up to catch those who aren't buckled up. Some Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department stations plan to distribute letters on the subject for children to take home from school.

Though many parents support the new law, that doesn't necessarily make it easy for them to do the right thing. First there is the cost, about $23 to $80 for a booster seat.

"It's good for the safety of the child, but some people don't have the money to buy one," said Ena Arevalo of North Hills, who will need a booster seat for her 4-year-old daughter.

Part of each fine for a safety-seat violation goes into a Los Angeles County Health Department program to help low-income families get car seats. For six years, the county has awarded 2,500 vouchers, worth $45 each, toward car seats to parents who attend safety classes.

In addition, the Ford Motor Co. will be giving the county about 5,000 booster seats that will be distributed to low-income families at community events and county hospitals and health centers, said Voncille McKinney, program manager of the county's child passenger safety restraint program. For more information, call (213) 351-5224.

Beyond cost, other parents wonder how they will be able to cram in all the kids in their carpool, if all must ride in safety seats. Others fret about how they will persuade car seat-liberated children that it's not a bad thing to return to the restrictive devices.

Five-year-old Joey Paul of Agoura Hills, the youngest of six, always rides in a car seat when he's with his mother. But with Dad, he uses a conventional seat belt, said his mother, Elizabeth, who plans to buy a booster seat for her husband's car.

"It's a point of contention," she said, "but [my husband] will come around because there will be a permanent car seat in his car. It's the right thing to do. It's the safest thing to do."

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