For the last eight years, Nishan Shepard, the owner of Rockbridge Kids, has set his own standard when it comes to selling car and booster seats. Although until this season California law required parents to keep their children in car or booster seats until they reach the age of six or weigh 60 pounds, Shepard encourages parents to stick it out even longer— to avoid for as long as possible letting their children rely solely on seat belts.
“I made my daughter ride in a car seat, way back in the caveman days, until she was eight years old,” he said. “These kids need for as long as possible to have car seats surrounding them to protect their delicate, still-developing bodies.”
When parents come into the store shopping for a new car or booster seat, the first thing they ask Shepard is about the requirements of the law. “And we answer, very quickly: ’Let’s talk about what’s right, not how old or how big your child needs to be to stop using a booster seat,’” he said.
The state of California has just gone one step farther in agreeing with Shepard. Last month, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill designed to give kids more time in the extra protection of booster seats. State Senate Bill 929, which will go into effect January 1, 2012, makes booster seats mandatory for kids up to eight years old, or 4 feet 9 inches tall. The new law, written by Senator Noreen Evans, is based on recommendations from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Transpiration Safety Board, and other groups that all argue for keeping kids in booster seats until they have grown large enough to make proper use of an adult safety belt.
“Seat belts are not designed for children,” said Evans, who has three children. “They are designed for people who are five feet and taller. So seat belts, as they are designed in modern cars, simply don’t keep our children safe.”
The new standard changes the law in two ways: it changes the requirements for using a booster or car seat; and defines more clearly the term “properly restrained,” which is used to describe how a seat belt should fit on a child.
“Properly restrained” refers to how well a child fits in a seat using only a seat belt, something many parents do not know how to judge, said Stephanie Tombrello, executive director of Safety Belts U.S.A., a California-based child passenger safety advocacy group. The new law, she said, helps clarify: “There’s a definition that the shoulder belt needs to be on the shoulder, and the lap belt needs to be where the hips attach to the thighs.”
In order for a seat belt to fit correctly on a child, the shoulder strap should go across the child’s chest. Tombrello said—not his neck or face, or behind his back. The child’s knees should meet the end of the seat. The lower strap should rest on his thighs, not his stomach.
“The difference between children and adults is that our bones are fully formed, and we have a better chance of keeping the lap belt out of our abdomen,” she said. A child might fit an age or weight requirement to qualify for switching to safety belts, but still not be proportioned right to stay safe, she said. Parents should judge for themselves whether their children are large enough to properly fit behind a seat belt.
For the past 40 years, Tombrello has worked on improving standards for child passenger safety in California—a crusade she said was difficult because so many people did not understand its importance. “They laughed at us,” she said, referring to legislators. “It took us 20 years, and going through Congress, to just get the standard for a seat belt in the center of the back seat, even though we already knew that’s the safest location in the car.”
Many legislators thought only in terms of children’s age and weight, she said, forgetting altogether that it is their bones and level of development that also count.
Laws stipulating child car seat requirements have been particularly difficult to change in California, she said, citing two bills on this topic that were vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger. “This is the third try,” she said. “So we were very happy that it was not vetoed this time.”
One reason for the delays in stricter car seat requirements is basic supply and demand. Today, most car seats and booster seats that fit larger kids come from Europe, Nathan Shepard said, because their child car safety requirements are stricter. But the larger size, more durable structure, and international origins of these seats also leads to a heftier price tag. Some models sell for as low as $45, but the safest models, he said, cost between $150 to $350.
As a father, he understands what a financial burden this can be, but said that there are times when a parent should go the extra mile. “I think that when your kid’s life is at stake, that’s when you don’t try to save money and stress on it,” he said.
Tombrello also recognizes the financial burden that the new law may place on some parents who will need to buy a larger car or booster seat to fit their child, but said that down the line, this one purchase might save them thousands of dollars.
“We really don’t want kids to become hurt,” she said. “Because when they get these injuries, there’s many years of medial care, education, special guidance for work, long term care and direction into adulthood to think about.”
Mimi Johnson, a Piedmont mother of two who heard about the new law from a sales clerk at Rockridge Kids when she was shopping for a third booster seat to use for her kids’ friends, said she is not upset by the new law if it better ensures the safety of her child.
“It’s a little harder, a little more cumbersome, and it can add a financial strain,” she said. “But if this the law and the best way to make sure that my kids are safe, then it is worth it.”