Washington state far outperforms the national average when it comes to seat belt use – 96.5 percent to 83 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s statistics for 2008.
So it seems uncharacteristic of such automotive safety consciousness that one out of four schoolchildren sampled in a recent awareness campaign by Spokane-area law enforcement officers was improperly secured in his or her car seat.
Uncharacteristic, perhaps, but not really a surprise. Two years ago, in a study performed for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, researchers at Washington State University found that while 90 percent of parents used car seats for child passengers, most of them did it incorrectly. That could cover a variety of sins – using the wrong restraint for child’s size and age, placing the seat in the wrong location or position, or fastening the child or the seat insecurely.
The fact that there are so many ways to get it wrong probably explains why Washington residents’ car seat use compares so poorly with their seat belt use, which is pretty simple. However, it also explains why numerous community resources are available to help parents overcome their confusion.
The Spokane Police Department will provide assistance for those who ask. The Shriners Hospital for Children (509-342-0110) or AAA (509-358-6942) will schedule appointments for parents who need car seat guidance. And, of course, car seats come with instructions.
Still, when officers showed up at three elementary schools in the area earlier in the month, they found a variety of violations, giving them an opportunity to educate parents and perhaps startle or embarrass them into more responsible conduct. That’s better than waiting until after an accident, as happened with Eileen Jensen, the Coeur d’Alene woman whose 3-month-old daughter died from the impact of an airbag that deployed in a 2006 accident. Jensen is scheduled to go on trial next year on vehicular homicide charges because her daughter’s car seat allegedly was installed improperly.
In this month’s awareness campaign, which was conducted on a specific day at three specific schools, officers also handed out congratulatory fliers to parents whose kids were properly secured.
Could such a feel-good experience have prevented Eileen Jensen’s nightmare? No one knows.
But given the precious stakes involved – and the disappointing showing by a fourth of the parents sampled in Spokane – strict enforcement of car seat laws is called for on more than an awareness-campaign basis.
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