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    Carseat boosters face no easy ride

    A bill requiring older kids to be strapped into the seats may not reach the governor desk.

    [Times photo: James Borchuck]
    Alphonso Cohen helps his granddaughter LaPorsha Cohen, 7, with her seat belt as he picks her up at Woodlawn Elementary School in St. Petersburg. under the proposed bill, kids like LaPorsha would have to sit in booster seats while in a car.

    By ADAM C. SMITH and MIKE SAEWITZ

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- Know of any youngsters who would be aghast at the prospect of having to return to a car booster seat? Tell them they may have a friend in Gov. Jeb Bush.

    The governor sounded decidedly skeptical Thursday about a bill that would require kids up to 8 years old or 4-foot-9 to use booster seats while in cars. Good intentions, Bush said, can produce overregulation.

    "I'm not sure we can create a society where we regulate everything to the point we can avoid bad things happening," Bush said. "I'm going to sincerely look at it, but there's a potential that the cumulative effect of these (proposed safety laws) is taking us down the wrong path."

    Nor does the booster seat bill appear to be a priority among House Republican leaders, who did not bring it up for a vote Thursday. State senators have passed the measure, but unless it passes the House today it dies without reaching the governor's desk.

    That would be just fine with 7-year-old Dara Stanton.

    "No way!" said she said outside Woodlawn Elementary School in St. Petersburg. "They're boring."

    Children 3 and younger already must ride in special car seats, but Florida, like most states, allows older children to use seat belts. Traffic safety experts say kids between 4 and 8 are usually too small for seat belts designed for adults and can be seriously injured in an accident.

    Young children placed in seat belts rather than booster or car seats are more than four times more likely to sustain serious injuries, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

    Three states -- Washington, California and Arizona -- require booster seats for children age 4 to 8, and Florida is among 20 states considering such laws. Ford Motor Co. has launched a $30-million campaign to promote booster seats, with actor/singer Will Smith touting their importance.

    Reactions from parents parked outside Woodlawn Elementary ranged from enthusiasm to outrage to confusion about how the law would be enforced -- by police and by parents.

    "It'll be awful hard keeping my kids in a car seat," said Kathie Neumann, who was picking up her 7-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son. They have been out of car seats since age 4 and now buckle themselves in the back seat, she said.

    "They wouldn't do it," she said. "I'd probably get a ticket."

    Brandi Roth, who in February bought a new booster seat for her 5-year-old son, thinks the bill would be a great law. She compares putting a child in a fast car to putting an egg in a shoe box.

    "If you shake the shoe box, you've got a scrambled egg," she said. "I don't want a scrambled kid."

    Ronie Smith, who has 7- and 4-year-old sons and a 6-year-old daughter -- as well as a Grand Marquis, wondered how parents with multiple children will find room in their cars for all those booster seats.

    "People are going to have to get bigger cars," she said.

    The bill's sponsors in the Legislature say that they've heard plenty of criticism about the bill smacking of big government and intrusive bureaucracy, but that most people are convinced when they learn the risks of going without them.

    "I'm a Republican from Day One. I'm no liberal. But right now we are regulating people to death with laws requiring people to strap their kids in unsafe seat belts," said Rep. Bob Allen, R-Merritt Island, sponsor of the House bill.

    In the most basic form, booster seats look like the boosters children use in restaurants. But designs and sizes vary, and they can cost anywhere from $20 to over $100. A number of groups distribute them for free to people who can't afford them.

    The Florida bill would require booster seats for children under 8 or shorter than 4-foot-9. A five-foot tall 7-year-old would not need one, nor would a four-foot 8-year-old. Weight is not a factor.

    The bill would take effect in January, but initially parents caught without the required boosters would only receive brochures about the seats. After July 1, 2002, they would receive a ticket but could have the charges dropped by getting a booster seat.

    In Tallahassee Thursday, the Senate sponsor of the bill, Republican Bill Posey of Rockledge, said he "begged" House Speaker Tom Feeney to bring up the bill for a vote, but couldn't get a commitment.

    "We'll take a look at it. Whether or not we'll have a chance to get to it, I don't know," Feeney said.

    Backers also are lobbying the governor.

    "I have no doubt that when all the information is in front of the governor and this bill is in front of the governor, he will sign it," said Center for Florida's Children president Jack Levine, who has talked to Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan about the bill.

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