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Bill would toughen car seat law

Florida Senate approves legislation requiring children 8 or younger to ride in car seats. House considers similar bill.

By DIANE RADO

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 20, 2001


Florida Senate approves legislation requiring children 8 or younger to ride in car seats. House considers similar bill.

TALLAHASSEE -- Parents: Don't get rid of that booster seat yet.

The Florida Senate approved legislation Thursday that would put in place the strictest car seat law for children in the nation, requiring kids age 8 or younger, and less than 4 feet 9 inches, to be in an appropriate car seat. The state House is poised to vote on a similar bill.

The change would be dramatic: Current law affects only children age 5 and younger and contains no height requirements for car seats. In addition, children ages 4 or 5 are now allowed to be in a regular seat belt.

Under the new proposals, children ages 4 through 8 who meet the height requirements would have to be in a car seat -- which could include a booster seat that is designed for bigger children and can cost less than $20. Children through age 3 still would have to be in a separate, full-size car seat, or in a car seat built into the car by the manufacturer.

Gov. Jeb Bush would have to review the legislation before making any decision, his spokeswoman said.

The controversial legislation was approved 29-2 in the state Senate, where it sparked the usual debate about balancing the power of government with the rights of individuals. Like arguments about bike helmets, motorcycle helmets and seat belts, the car seat debate stirred emotion, focusing on how much government should interfere with parents' decisions on their children's safety.

"We're going to throw the state of Florida, all the parents, all the families, into a tailspin -- on height, on weight, on am I violating the law, am I not violating the law," said state Sen. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, a former state highway patrol trooper.

"Let's not go to this extreme. This is absolutely an extreme position to take with regard to this issue," said state Sen. Ron Silver, D-North Miami. "We are going too far. What we are doing here, I cannot believe."

But state Sen. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, the legislation sponsor, said the new requirements for booster seats will save lives, because seat belts ride too high on small children and can cause paralysis and other severe injuries in an accident.

A recent study in the medical journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics stated that correct seat belt fit is usually not achieved until a child is 9 years old and that booster seats could have prevented a sizable portion of injuries and deaths of child passengers.

Posey said a booster seat merely raises the position of the child. Parents can sell it to their older children -- who might resist being in a car seat -- by telling them: "You'll be able to see the world like an adult" while driving in a car.

Posey said he pursued the bill at the request of a Junior League organization that was working with an FHP trooper on the issue.

But he also said he feels strongly about seat belts and car seats because he is convinced that his own daughter was saved by a seat belt in an 1986 accident. He also races cars as a hobby. "I know the value of seat belts and shoulder harnesses," Posey said.

In deference to the concerns of his colleagues, Posey retreated from a weight requirement for car seats in the legislation and backed off from strict penalties for violating the car seat law.

As it stands now, the new car seat rules would not take effect until Jan. 1. But beginning in July, drivers who don't have car seats for children age 8 or younger and less than 4 feet 9 inches, may be issued a verbal warning and given educational literature by a law enforcement officer.

Even after Jan. 1, courts would dismiss charges against first-time violators if they show proof of purchasing a car seat. After that, drivers could be issued a moving traffic violation. Under current law, a driver who violates the car seat law is subject to a $60 fine and a 3 point assessment on their record.

Under the new rules, Florida's car seat law would be far more expansive than any other state, according to a review by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

That review shows that children around the country usually have to be in car seats only up to ages 3 or 4. Seat belts are permissible for older children.

In the state of Washington, booster seats generally will be required for children ages 4 and 5 or 40 to 60 pounds beginning in July 2002.

Diane Jones, a project director for the American Automobile Association in Tampa, said that her organization generally favors the car seat legislation approved by the Senate but that the bill also poses some practical problems.

The legislation requires "crash-tested, federally approved" booster seats, but Jones said she is not aware of federal standards relating to height requirements for booster seats, such as the 4 feet 9 inches requirement in the legislation.

"The height (of a child) is not addressed anywhere in the federal standards, so I don't know how enforceable this law is going to be," Jones said.

Jones said AAA suggested to sponsors of the legislation that the age limit for car seats be 5, and the weight limit be 40 pounds, which federal standards do address.

However, Jones said she still supports the legislation as a "wonderful concept" that will make parents aware that putting older children in a seat belt in the back seat falls short of having a booster seat.

"We need to do something," Jones said. "Parents want to protect their children, and they're doing what they think is right by putting kids in the back seat in a seat belt."

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