Please be (booster) seated

It's time to drive home the need for these lifesavers

Almost half of the Canadian children under 10 who die in car accidents are four- to eight-year-olds wearing seat belts, but not in booster seats.

That’s the most compelling child safety stat I have ever seen.

According to data from Transport Canada, 60 of the 100 Canadian children who die as passengers in car accidents in an average year are in the four-to-eight age group. Forty-eight of them should have been in a booster, according to recommendations, but wore only a seat belt.

When you put that together with research showing that proper use of booster seats improves kids’ safety by 59 percent, it suggests that a potential 28 young Canadian lives could be saved each year if all kids aged four to eight used booster seats.

I’m stunned that we aren’t getting this statistic drummed into us. I mean, think about the campaigns designed to get peanuts out of schools, eliminate baby walkers and prevent strangling deaths caused by window blind cords. Those are all legitimate concerns, but none of them has caused anywhere near the loss of life experienced by school-aged kids in car accidents.

Experts have been recommending widespread booster seat use for a few years. Quebec, Ontario and Nova Scotia have laws requiring children to be in boosters until they reach a certain size or age; BC and Newfoundland’s laws come into effect next summer. In other provinces, though, they’re optional — unlike car seats for younger children and infants.

Parents have been slow on the uptake, as a study by Anne Snowdon, a professor at the Odette School of Business at the University of Windsor (Ont.), shows. Based on observations of more than 10,000 kids in cars at intersections across Canada, Snowdon’s team estimated that only 28 percent of four- to eight-year-olds were in a booster or a car seat. The rate of correct use of car seats for kids under four was much higher, at 67 percent — though well short of perfect.

The need for babies and toddlers to be in seats is obvious. But many parents think boosters aren’t necessary, according to research.

And a seven-year-old begging to be free of her booster may look big enough to be protected in a seat belt. She’s not. When kids are shorter than four feet, nine inches — as most are who are younger than nine — seat belts can’t do the job they were designed to do, placing the pressure of a collision on the chest, shoulders and hips. On a too-small child, the seat belt puts pressure on the soft areas, such as the neck and the stomach. Put that together with the low rate of booster seat use and we can start to see why the death rate from car crashes in kids age four and under dropped by 52 percent between 1997 and 2001, but hardly budged in five- to nine-year-olds.

Getting parents to comply with recommendations and laws for booster seat use will take a concerted, persistent public education campaign. We’ll need messages going home in school newsletters, and celebrities trumpeting the need for boosters — you know, Sidney Crosby in a TV commercial and a slogan like “Get the boost!” I’d like to see police officers handing out brochures at seat belt spot checks. And give parents the stats; make them see how many kids needlessly die.

We need to help parents see that booster seat recommendations are not just another arcane safety regulation stemming from a couple of freak accidents. If we could normalize booster seat use, as we did with seat belts and baby car seats, we could save about 28 lives a year. It might not be your kid who is saved. But it’s a precious young life nonetheless.

For guidelines on booster seat use, go to safekidscanada.ca.

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