More than 90 percent of Washington drivers are taking the time to secure their kids inside vehicles. But most of those parents are getting it wrong, according to a study released last week by Washington State University.
A chilling example of apparent improper restraint was highlighted last week, in the case of a Coeur d’Alene mother who could face vehicular homicide charges in connection with the death of her daughter. Investigators alleged in court records that the infant’s car seat was not properly installed in March 2006 when the mother caused a collision in Spokane. The girl was 3 months old at the time of the accident and died earlier this year.
“For some people, I think it’s clearly an education issue,” said Steven Stehr, chairman of the WSU Department of Political Science/Criminal Justice Program. “They don’t know what the proper restraint method is for a child of that size.”
Stehr and fellow WSU professor Nicholas Lovrich completed a study in October showing that more than 96 percent of Washington drivers use their seat belts when they drive, which they believe is at or near the highest rate in the nation.
But while seat belt use for drivers has steadily increased since 2000, the most recent WSU study showed that parents were improperly restraining about half of children smaller than 40 pounds in infant safety seats, and they were restraining fewer than 18 percent of children weighing between 40 and 80 pounds in booster seats.
“We can’t get at this data: why there seems to be a decline in the proper use of restraints,” Stehr said. “They are restraining them, but it’s with seat belts.”
Researchers were contracted to do the work for the seventh straight year by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. Stehr said the researchers went to parking lots around the state and observed how parents restrained their children in vehicles.
The numbers of parents using infant safety seats for the smallest children has been “backsliding” from 77 percent using proper restraints in 2000 to about 51 percent this year. “Generally speaking, children are not being transported unrestrained,” Lovrich said in a press release. “In fact, only about 2 percent of the smallest children and 6 percent of the larger children were observed riding in vehicles unrestrained.
“But the smallest children observed, those under 40 pounds, were just about as likely as to be riding in a booster seat intended for a larger child or restrained by some type of adult seat belt system as to be in a proper child safety seat.”
Eileen Jensen, the 23-year-old Coeur d’Alene mother whose daughter died, could become the first parent in Washington criminally charged for improperly using a car seat.
Jensen was driving her 2001 Honda Accord on North Freya with her three daughters on March 22, 2006. According to Spokane court records, Jensen caused a three-car crash when she smashed into the back of a stopped minivan.
Her infant daughter, Chloe, was riding in a loosely installed rear-facing car seat in the front passenger seat. When the Honda’s airbag deployed, it caused the head trauma that later killed the baby, according to a search warrant recently filed by Spokane police.
Stehr said he is aware of the Jensen case, but it had nothing to do with the study.
“I don’t know to what extent the improper restraint had on this incident, but there is some data out there that suggests something like 1,500 children have been saved by increased use of proper child restraints,” he said.
Most parents take heed to restrain infants. However, the proper restraint numbers start to slide as the children age, he said.
“Once kids get to 50 or 60 pounds, there’s this natural sort of desire not to be considered a small child and they don’t want to be in a booster seat until age 8, even though they should be,” he said.
Washington State Patrol Trooper Mark Baker concurred with the study. Baker said most violations he sees are parents who don’t properly restrain larger children.
“Dads, moms and kids think they are big enough not to be in a booster seat … and the seat belt is riding over their neck,” Baker said. “They are the ones who should still be in a booster seat.”
Along with the observations from parking lots, researchers have law enforcement data on all the tickets written for improper restraints from all Washington counties.
“That’s going to be the next sort of step,” Stehr said. “Now we have to match that up (with the observations) and see if there is a correlation. We anticipate that we will be doing an enhanced version of this same study next summer.”