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Booster seat law takes effect this summer

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Kentucky Press News Service/The Courier-Journal

Starting this summer, parents will be required to keep children secured in booster seats a little longer under a new state law that aims to improve safety in motor vehicles.

The law, enacted in this year's legislative session, includes two key changes related to age and height that parents should heed, otherwise they could face a $25 fine.

Right now, children who are younger than age 7 and are between 40 and 50 inches tall must remain in a booster seat. The new rules raise the age to 8 and the height requirement to 57 inches.

If a child exceeds either standard, a car seat is not mandatory by law. But safety experts still advise parents to keep children in a booster until a seat belt fits correctly across the lap and shoulder — rather than the stomach or neck.

State officials are still determining the exact date the law will take effect, although it is expected to occur in late June or early July. They say the challenge now is alerting parents.

Kristen Dolle, a Louisville mother of two, ages 3 and 6, said she hadn't heard that changes are coming and "I don't think I would find out that information unless I was actively seeking it."

The Kentucky Office of Highway Safety is preparing to launch a statewide media campaign to educate parents over the next two months, along with law enforcement.

Executive director Bill Bell said the office has been urging parents to embrace stricter standards for years and now the law will match those recommendations.

"I can't say it's touched everybody, but it's been out there for three years now," he said. "We've been talking about it."

According to the Administrative Office of the Courts, authorities issued 1,898 booster seat violations in Kentucky last year, including 189 in Jefferson County. They also filed more than 3,600 charges for failure to use a child restraint device.

Bell said judges will often waive the violation fee if parents show their booster seats in court.

But even when boosters are used, most parents install them incorrectly, warned Sharon Rengers, a registered nurse and child advocate at Kosair Children's Hospital.

Kosair offers clinics and fitting stations to check car seats for proper installation, and Rengers said 95 percent are installed incorrectly.

Parents often don't position the seat high enough or don't have the belts adjusted right, she said. Sometimes they graduate kids into boosters too early or use older seats that don't fit the child or the car.

"Not every booster seat fits every car the same," said Rengers.

Checks take about 20 minutes and Kosair provides them free of charge. Experts will also make sure a seat isn't on a recall list.

Car crashes are the second most common reason kids are brought into Kosair's emergency department, and Rengers said she hopes to see an immediate effect from the law. Yet, some families still won't see the need to use seats, or feel they can't afford it, she said.

Of the 95 children — ages 4 through 8 — who were admitted to the emergency room over the past two years, 32 fell outside the current booster seat requirements in Kentucky law.

One common injury is "seat belt syndrome," when a seat belt focuses the impact of the collision on the organs and soft tissue in a child's abdomen, rather than the thighs or chest. Booster seats are designed to raise the child up several inches so that the seat belt fits properly.

"People take chances a lot of time with safety," Rengers said. "We are not making this stuff up. It happens to kids everyday."

Advocates have sought to change Kentucky's law for years, but the legislation usually stalled in the Senate amid criticism of government overreach and cost of buying boosters. This year, it won strong support in both chambers.

Rep. Steve Riggs, D-Louisville and sponsor of the bill, said he changed the debate this year by arguing that government requirements on boosters already exists, but just need to be fixed.

He said he would tell parents that "all this law says is when you use booster seats. The law already requires you to have one."

Upcoming changes

Right now, children who are younger than 7 and are between 40 and 50 inches tall must remain in a booster. The new rules raise the age to 8 and the height requirement to 57 inches. Violations will result in a $25 fine.