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Testimony before the Louisiana House of Representatives, Committee on Transportation, Highways, and Public Works, on Child Passenger Safety Legislation
Carol Carmody
Louisiana House of Representatives, Committee on Transportation, Highways, and Public Works, on Child Passenger Safety Legislation

Good morning Chairman Diez and members of the Committee on Transportation, Highways and Public Works. It is my pleasure to be here in Baton Rouge to talk about belt-positioning booster seats.

I want to commend you for focusing on this issue that will so easily save children from crash-related deaths and injuries.

The National Transportation Safety Board is an independent Federal agency charged by Congress to investigate transportation accidents, determine their probable cause, and make recommendations to prevent their recurrence. The recommendations that arise from our investigations and safety studies are our most important product. The Safety Board has neither regulatory authority nor grant funds. In our 36-year history, organizations and government bodies have adopted more than 80 percent of our recommendations.

The Safety Board has recognized for many years that traffic crashes are one of this nation's most serious transportation safety problems. More than 90 percent of all transportation related deaths each year result from highway crashes. Traffic crashes are also the leading cause of death to children, and data indicate that nearly half of crashes involving children occur within 7 minutes from home. Injuries and deaths for children in the 4 to 8 age range remain high because they are either unrestrained or restrained in systems too advanced for their physical development. According to data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), from 1994 to 2001, almost 4,000 children in this age group were killed while riding in motor vehicles. Over 83 percent of child passengers in this age group who died were unrestrained or in an adult seat belt. For this age group in Louisiana, 87 children died while riding in motor vehicles and over 80 percent were unrestrained or in an adult seat belt.

Simply restraining a child makes it 3 times less likely that the child will be injured in a crash. Placing the child in the rear seat makes it an additional 2 times less likely that the child will be injured. But the best protection for children in the 4 to 8 age range is to place the child in the rear with a belt-positioning booster seats.

Today I want to discuss 2 key issues. First, belt-positioning booster seats are necessary to ensure proper seat belt fit for children ages 4 to 8. Second, a successful booster seat program requires legislation.

Seat Belts Do Not Provide Sufficient Protection for Children Ages 4 to 8

Because seat belts are designed to provide optimal protection for adults, they do not provide sufficient protection for children. Seat belts depend on the person's bone structure to operate properly, spreading the forces of a crash over the hips, shoulders, and chest, keeping the occupant in place so that the head, face, and chest are less likely to strike the inside of the vehicle. Correct seat belt fit is not usually achieved until a child is 9 years old, the age at which the child's thigh is long enough for the child to sit against the seat back, the hips are sufficiently developed to anchor the belt, and the child's height is sufficient for the shoulder belt to fit properly over the shoulder and sternum.

In 1996, the Safety Board examined the performance and use of occupant protection systems for children. The Safety Board reviewed 120 crashes in which at least one vehicle had a child passenger younger than age 11 and in which at least one occupant was transported to the hospital. This sample included 46 children who were restrained in child restraint systems, 83 children restrained in seat belts, and 65 children who were unrestrained, for a total of 194 children. The Safety Board found that none of the fatally injured children were children who were in the appropriate restraint and who used it properly. Children inappropriately restrained by seat belts had higher overall injury severity, including 5 fatal injuries, than children properly restrained. Among the unrestrained children, almost 30 percent suffered moderate or worse injuries, including 5 fatalities. Children in high severity accidents tended to sustain injury, which makes proper restraint even more important in such accidents.

Using a seat belt without a booster seat can result in serious injury to children. Without a booster seat, the lap belt can ride over a child's stomach and the shoulder belt can cut across a child's neck. As this position is uncomfortable, children frequently remove the shoulder portion of the adult seat belt, increasing their risk of head injury. According to a study by Partners for Child Passenger Safety, children inappropriately restrained in seat belts are 3.5 times more likely to suffer abdominal injury than children appropriately restrained with booster seats. There were no reported abdominal injuries among children 4- to 8-years-old, who were restrained in booster seats. However, when children use booster seats, there is a 50 percent to 75 percent reduction in serious injuries.

A Successful Booster Seat Program Requires Legislation

Although education is an important factor in increasing booster seat use, it is not sufficient by itself for attaining higher booster seat use levels. Partners for Child Passenger Safety has determined that 49 percent of children between the ages of 3 and 8 are in child restraints. Despite these gains, however, half the children in this age range are still inappropriately restrained in adult seat belts. Much of the opposition to mandating booster seats concerns the inconvenience and cost to adults to comply with booster seat laws. A backless belt-positioning booster seat costs less than $20. And as a nation, what value do we want to place on a child's life?

In her testimony before the U.S. Senate, Autumn Skeen, a mother who lost her son because he was not in a booster seat, stated that she relied on Washington state statutes in deciding to use a seat belt for her 4-year-old son. In June 1996, Anton Skeen died when he was ejected out of his seat belt and out of the vehicle even though his seat belt remained buckled. Ms. Skeen's reliance on state law to determine the necessary safety requirements for their children is common among concerned parents. In focus groups conducted by Partners for Child Passenger Safety, many parents who used seat belts to restrain their children justified their actions with their states' child passenger safety laws.

Our investigation shows that children are safer if placed in booster seats up to age 8. Therefore, in our 1996 safety study, the Safety Board recommended enacting legislation that ensures children up to 8 are required by the state's mandatory child restraint use law to use child restraint systems and booster seats. The value of legislation is apparent when considering the advances made in child restraint and seat belt use after legislation was passed. Child restraint use went from 15 percent to 51 percent between 1979 and 1985 and is now above 90 percent. Seat belt use went from 14 percent to 59 percent between 1984 and 1991, and is now about 75 percent. Sixteen States (Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming) and the District of Columbia have mandated that children age 4 and above use booster seats. At least 17 other states have considered booster seat legislation this year.

FARS data from 1994 - 2001 show that 445 children were riding in motor vehicles on Louisiana roads when they were involved in a fatal crash. Over 32 percent of the 445 children died or suffered incapacitating injuries, and almost 80 percent of those children, who died or suffered incapacitating injuries, were not in child restraints. Only 14 children, or 3 percent, of those involved in fatal crashes were using any form of child restraint.

House Bill 713 is a step in the right direction in protecting Louisiana's children. It extends the requirement to use child restraints through age 5, adding 3 full years of protection. And it corrects an unfortunate provision of Louisiana law by applying the child passenger safety requirements to all drivers, not just Louisiana residents.

In the 1990s, 8,600 children ages 4 to 8 died in traffic crashes. Parents want to protect their children, but many parents do not understand that seat belts do not provide sufficient protection for children in this age range. Belt-positioning booster seats ensure proper seat belt fit, which means that children get the optimum level of protection from the seat belt without the risk of injuries such as seat belt syndrome. Passing House Bill 713 will save lives and reduce serious injuries for Louisiana's youngest citizens. It would also reduce both public and private expenditures for medical care and other support that would otherwise be incurred for as long as the injured child lives.

Thank you again for inviting the Safety Board to testify about this important problem and I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.