Keeping Kids Safe While on the Road

Posted May 12, 2009 in Criminal Law by

I just returned from a visit with my 18-month-old nephew. Each and every time he rides in the car, his parents diligently strap him into his forward-facing car seat. He’s happy and comfortable there, and I’m always pleasantly surprised to see that he accepts the seat, with all of its straps and buckles, with little fuss or fanfare.

Today’s car-seat laws are very different than those the existed when my brother and I were young. As children of the 1970s, we only spent a couple years–if that–in a car seat. (I joke that my Mom just let us roll around in the back of her Datsun station wagon. While not entirely true, the standards were much more lax than they are today.) By the time we were four or five years old, we were fighting over which one us got to ride in the front seat.

New parents, relatives, guardians and caregivers must acquaint themselves with laws and guidelines that barely existed a generation ago. Laws also vary from state to state, so parents who travel with kids have to familiarize themselves with several sets of rules. But all of the laws generally follow some basic principles that have developed over time:

  • Infants should ride in the back seat of the vehicle, in a rear-facing car seat, until at least one year old and at least 20 pounds.
  • Use forward-facing car seats after the child graduates from a rear-facing seat. The forward-facing seat should also be installed in the car’s back seat, and is used until the child is about four years old and weighs 40 pounds.
  • Booster seats should be used, also in the back seat, until the car’s seat belts properly fit a child. Booster seats are usually used until the child is eight years old and about 4’9" tall.
  • Seat belts or safety belts should be used after the child outgrows the booster seat. Children should continue to sit in a back seat.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety publishes a state-by-state list of child-restraint laws. The IIHS also compiles a list of safety belt laws for children who have outgrown car seats and booster seats.

Experts recommend that you follow the guidelines listed above, even if your state’s laws are less stringent. Parents should also be careful to read the manufacturer’s guidelines for their particular safety seat. For example, if your infant has outgrown a rear-facing car seat, but is still less than one year old, you should buy a new rear-facing seat or buy a convertible seat (one that can be used in both the rear-facing and forward-facing positions) to use in the rear-facing position until your child is at least one year old. Regardless of weight and size, your baby still needs to have the physical development that comes with time before it is safe to ride in a forward-facing car seat.

Penalties for Breaking the Law

All 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, have child-restraint laws. In most states, violations are a primary offense, which means the police can pull you over if they see you break the law. In a few states (including, as of May 2009, Colorado, Nebraska, Ohio and Pennsylvania), certain violations are only a secondary offense, which means the police can’t stop you solely because you’re disobeying this law, but they can ticket you if they pull you over for another reason, like speeding, and see that a child in your car isn’t in a proper car seat.

The maximum fines for the first offense range from as low as $10 in Michigan and Missouri to $500 in Nevada. Some states also assess driver’s license points for violations or require mandatory child-restraint education for violators.

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