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  • Oregon's child-restraint laws in need of a boost

    Vague language leads to deaths among children too big for car seats, too small for seat belts

    Saturday, February 17, 2001

    IN MY OPINION Autumn Alexander Skeen

    Central Oregon was our destination when my 4-year-old son Anton and I buckled up and set out from Seattle in a borrowed SUV the summer of 1996. We were headed for our family's beloved cabin along the Metolius.

    Instead, on the windy interstate between Ellensburg and Yakima, we drifted onto the shoulder. The SUV rolled three times. When the Washington State Patrol arrived, they found me critically injured but alive, held into the car by my seat belt. Next to me, however, they found no one, the seat belt still clicked shut. Anton had been ejected from the car's sprung doors and killed.

    I had trusted the law that day when I buckled him in. But the adult seat belt completely failed him. At 45 pounds he was too small, I learned later, for it to do its job.

    The Washington law was not worthy of the trust parents put in it. It was, in essence, what Oregon's law is now.

    Since that terrible day, my family and I have fought to change Washington's law to reflect what the experts now say: Children approximately ages 4 to 8, between 40 and 80 pounds and less than 4 feet 9 inches tall need special, elevated seats to travel safely.

    In Oregon, the law requires use of carseats up to age 4 or 40 pounds, and then that children be properly secured. Parents see that as making sure their children use seat belts -- which are designed for an average 160-pound man. That, among other gaps in Oregon child passenger safety laws, is why the state scored a D in a recent report card put out by the National Safe Kids Campaign.

    But one judge down in Medford is not asleep at the wheel on this issue of small kids flopping around in big seat belts. This month, Jackson County Circuit Judge Daniel L. Harris backed up a deputy's citation to a woman, who was in an accident, for failing to properly secure her two post-carseat-age youngsters.

    The deputy noted that her children had slipped out of their adult seat belts in the crash and had been thrown against the back of the front seats. Fortunately, the children were not hospitalized, but nonetheless it was obvious they were not adequately restrained.

    Harris wrote that he looked to specific national standards when deciding her children had not been properly secured.

    " 'Properly secured' means children ages 4 through 8 and weighing 40 to 80 pounds need to ride in booster seats, which protect them from spinal and head injuries," Harris wrote in explaining his finding that she had violated Oregon's law. Nonetheless, he waived her $55 fine, noting that she and the general public need education in this area.

    He also is circulating a letter, pointing out this foggy area of Oregon child passenger law and gathering opinions among his judicial colleagues.

    "My major concern is that law enforcement and judges don't fully interpret our law. They don't go to the national standard," Harris said. "We need to make it crystal clear so everyone has an opportunity to understand what 'properly secured' means. We can't impose fines unless that is understood."

    Whether Oregon chooses to upgrade its child passenger laws with specific mention of booster seats or to expand and educate upon what's already on the books is important.

    But far more important is that parents not wait. Parents must obtain these seats for use with three-point seat belts if they travel with children ages 4 to 8.

    Eight children ages 4 to 8 died last year on Oregon's highways because they were not restrained appropriately, and many others were grossly injured. Those are deaths that devastate families and marriages, deaths that go on dying as the child's birthdays go by, their toys gather dust, their photos on the refrigerators frozen in time. These are preventable deaths.

    Parents: Heed the experts and campaign safety messages. Booster seats are easy to use, fun for children because they can see out the window and serve as a form of inoculation from the hazards of today's commutes. Please don't wait. Protect the children who trust you, and, likewise, protect yourselves from regret.

    Take it from one who knows: Hindsight is hell.

    Autumn Alexander Skeen of Walla Walla, Wash., is the national safety ambassador for Ford Motor Co.'s Boost America campaign. Parents may obtain booster seat information from the Oregon Child Safety Seat Resource Center, 1-800-772-1315.

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