Car-seat law offers a safety 'baseline'
CONCORD - Calling changes to state child restraint laws a "baseline" and "minimum," child safety advocates and a car-seat expert say parents should go beyond the law's minimum standards when deciding whether to place their children in car seats.
The existing law - in effect until Dec. 31 - provides that a child must be in a car seat until he or she is 55 inches tall or has turned 6 years old.
As of Jan. 1, 2014, use of a child seat will be mandatory until a child has either reached 57 inches in height, or has reached his or her 7th birthday.
"I always refer to the law as the minimum baseline for safety," said Sarah Tilton, a child passenger safety advocate for Britax, one of the world's largest manufacturers of car seats. "It is not, by any means, the best practice."
Tilton's sentiment is shared by Debra Samaha, program director of the Injury Prevention Center at Children's Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon.
"A child may be very tall for their age, yet developmentally they are not ready to use an adult seat belt only," she said. "They may squirm and slouch and become distracted and not keep the adult seat belt in a safe position which may harm them in the event of a crash."
Samaha said a list of 32 inspection stations will soon be posted at the Driving Toward Zero website, nhdtz.com, which promotes traffic safety in the hopes of preventing fatal accidents. She said parents can take their child restraint systems to the stations, most of which are fire stations and police departments, to ensure their car seats are properly secured and right for their children.
Peter Thomson, coordinator of the New Hampshire Highway Safety Agency, said the law is expected to affect about 15,000 children statewide who might otherwise have stopped needing car seats under the existing law. He said that, while police agencies probably wouldn't set up enforcement efforts specifically looking for violations of the new law, an officer may charge someone if he or she sees that a child isn't secured as required by the law.
Violations carry fines of $50 for a first offense and $100 for subsequent offenses.
"We would hope that parents would jump on it and do the right thing," he said.
Parents must also have car seats that conform to U.S. Department of Transportation standards, which provide manufacturers with guidelines for how car seats should be built. Manufacturers typically place expiration dates on car seats and warn parents against using hand-me-down seats that have passed their expiration dates.
Tilton said children are ready to ride in a car without a car seat when their back is against the seat back, knees bend at the edge of the seat, feet touch the floor, the lap belt is across their hips and thighs and not their stomach, and the shoulder harness stretches across the middle of their chest and rests on the collarbone and not the neck.
She said parents shouldn't have much adjustment when the new law takes effect to find a child restraint system that is right for their child.
There are several seat types:
-- Infant car seats, which are rear facing only and intended for babies. Some models can accommodate children as heavy as 40 pounds.
-- Convertible seats, which can face the rear of the car and, when a child is large enough - usually at least 1 year old and at least 20 pounds - it can be turned around to face forward. Convertible seats by Britax, for example, can hold a child up to 70 pounds and up to 49 inches tall.
-- Forward-facing-only seats, which are for toddlers and can only face forward. They are often used by parents who want their children kept in a five-point harness longer.
-- Combination seats, which have five-point harnesses that can be removed later to let them act as booster seats using a car's seat belt system. Most seats are meant for children 25 to 90 pounds when using the harness system and up to 120 pounds when used as a booster seat.
-- Booster seats, which prop up children to a safe height to use a car's seat belt system. Some can accommodate children as heavy as 120 pounds.