If your 6 or 7-year-old has abandoned his or her car seat, it's time to find out where it was left.
Beginning Jan. 1, a new California law will require that children riding in any vehicle must be restrained in the back seat in a child restraint until their eighth birthday or until the child reaches 4 feet 9 inches tall. If you're caught violating the new law, you'll be subject to a fine of nearly $500 and the loss of one point on your driver's record.
The California Highway Patrol won't be allowing a grace period when the new standard becomes law.
"With me, I don't give too many breaks when it comes to seat belts or child safety seats," says CHP Officer Amelia Jack. "We are responsible as adults to make sure our children are safe."
California's current child restraint law only protects children that are under the age of 6 or weigh less than 60 pounds. With the new law, California will join more than 20 other states that mandate an 8-year-old use a child safety seat or booster when traveling in a vehicle.
Wednesday, a group of legislators, officials and child safety advocates gathered in Menlo Park to emphasize the coming change brought on by Senate Bill 929, which will take effect on Jan. 1, 2012. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill into law Oct. 4. Nineteenth District Assemblymember Jerry Hill was one of the legislators in Sacramento that moved the bill to the governor's desk.
"Children can be the victims (of car crashes), because they can't control where they're going to sit in most cases, and we have to guide them in the right direction," Hill said.
According to statistics, the number one killer of children in the United States is vehicle collisions. Young children are often too small for seat belts that are made to fit adults.
Authorities say restraining children who are under 4 feet 9 inches tall with only a seat belt puts them at risk for serious injury. If the belt is across the child's waist instead of across the hips or thigh bones, he could suffer damage to internal organs and/or a spinal cord injury if involved in a collision. (A series of images in one of the photos above this article shows what happens to the child's body - when not in a booster seat - in a crash.)
A group comprised of Safe Kids Santa Clara/San Mateo Coalition, the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, the CHP, and Assemblyman Jerry Hill suggest a 5-step test to confirm if a child over the age of 8 can safely ride without a child restraint once the new law no longer applies to them:
Can your child....
1. Sit with his/her back flat up against the vehicle seat,
2. while his/her knees are bent naturally over the seat cushion edge,
3. with the lap belt across his/her hip or thigh bones,
4. and the shoulder belt across his/her shoulder (not crossing over his/her face or under his/her arm or, behind his/her back),
5. and he/she can stay seated in that position the entire trip?
Come Jan. 1, there will be a group of 6 and 7-year-old children already out of child and booster seats who will need to return to the child seat restraints. For a mom or dad, that may be a frustrating discussion.
"That's going to be a tough one," says Hill. "It will be difficult. But I believe you can talk to children about it. All you have to do is explain to them it's safer, and 'we have to do it.' And I think most kids will understand that."