Booster Seats

May. 18, 2006 — Under measures recently passed by legislatures in Missouri and Kansas, 4- to 7-year-olds would have to ride in booster seats in vehicles.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius signed the Kansas measure into law in March. Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt, who has indicated support for the idea, is reviewing the legislation passed last week as part of an overall traffic safety bill.

Though Kansas and Missouri require child-safety seats for children under 4, there had been no booster seat requirement for children 4 and over. Both states, though, have required children 4 and older to wear seatbelts.

Child-safety seats are secured to a seat with a seatbelt but have built-in harnesses to restrain the child. Booster seats, on the other hand, are designed for larger children and use lap and shoulder seatbelts to restrain the child.

In Missouri, Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City lobbied strongly for the requirement, and Sen. Chris Koster, a Harrisonville Republican, proposed the booster seat measure, which was attached to other legislation.

"There are going to be a meaningful amount of lives saved as a result of this legislation," Koster said.

What do the new measures require?

Both the Kansas and Missouri measures require booster seats for children from 4 to 7 years old who weigh less than 80 pounds or are less than 4 feet 9 inches tall.

When would the measures become effective?

The Kansas law becomes effective July 1. The Missouri requirement, should Blunt sign the legislation into law, would become effective Aug. 28.

What is the reason for the booster seat requirement?

Safety advocates say that children who are not big enough to ride in seats with lap and shoulder belts need booster seats to protect them.

Because safety belts are not designed for small children, lap belts tend to cross a child's belly, putting him or her at risk of internal injuries in a crash. Meanwhile, a shoulder belt rides too close to a small child's neck, and children frequently tuck the shoulder belt behind them, leading to risks of head and spine injuries in a crash.

According to Partners for Child Passenger Safety, a group composed of The Children s Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm Insurance, children 4 to 7 in booster seats are at a 59 percent lower risk of injury than children restrained only with lap and shoulder belts.

Koster said the measure could save the lives of as many as 30 children a year in Missouri.

In Missouri, critics of the requirement, such as Sen. Luann Ridgeway, a Smithville Republican, say it is an example of government intrusion in people's private lives.

"When Governor Blunt's baby, Branch, is 8 years old, he's going to be down here trying to get this repealed," Ridgeway said during a Senate debate on the bill.

Sen. Victor Callahan, an Independence Democrat, said the bill does not take into account real-world scenarios such as a parent in a minivan picking up a soccer team. Now, parents are going to have to haul around a trunk load of booster seats for every foray involving children, no matter how brief or unanticipated, he said.

Koster acknowledged the new requirement might mean parents may have to plan their outings more carefully.

"There was a certain inconvenience factor that was considered by the General Assembly when it passed this legislation," Koster said, adding, though, "How do you say that the inconvenience of parents outweighs the lives of children?"

Are there any exceptions to the measures?

In both states, the booster seat requirement would not apply to drivers whose cars have only lap belts. Also, the requirements apply only to passenger vehicles, not school buses and public or commercial transportation. The measures also make exceptions when there are more kids in the car than there are seatbelts.

What are the penalties for not abiding by the new requirements?

In Kansas, motorists found in violation will be fined $60, though only warnings will be issued the first year. In Missouri, drivers who violate the law would face up to a $50 fine, though the fine could be dismissed if the driver bought a booster seat.

What kind of booster seat is OK to use?

Both states allow for the use of booster seats that either have a back or that are a bottom only, allowing a child's back to rest against the car's seat back.

According to Vicky Williams, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Division of Highway Safety, "any seat that is approved compliant with the federal motor vehicle safety standards is OK to use."

The seats will be marked on a sticker something like, "This child restraint system conforms to all applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards." Then it will indicate that the seat is certified for use in a motor vehicle and whether or not it is certified for use in an aircraft.

Basic, square booster seats that consist of only a base "designed for children 40 pounds and up" start at $24.99 at Babies R Us in Overland Park. "Turbo boosters, which have a back, cost from $49.99 to $129.99. At Wal-Mart in Lee's Summit, booster seats range in price from $18.92 to $139.88.

Will there be any assistance for low-income families to purchase booster seats?

Missouri stands to gain an estimated $850,000 in federal incentive funds if the measure is signed into law, state highway safety officials said. Up to half of the money could be used to help buy booster seats for low-income families, while the rest would go for training and a public awareness campaign, among other things.

Do other states have similar requirements?

Thirty-four other states and the District of Columbia have passed laws mandating booster seats, though the laws may sometimes differ in age requirements and other respects.

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