Tom P. Watkins was appalled by news of a Christmas Day crash that killed a 6-year-old girl who should have been wearing her seat belt.
Sadly, he was not surprised.
Brandon John Greise of Hyndman, Pa., was driving his family home from an Orlando, Fla., vacation when he lost control of his SUV about 1 p.m. Friday on Interstate 95 in Dunn, the state Highway Patrol said. The SUV hit a tractor-trailer and a guardrail, overturned and landed upside-down.
Six people were hurt, and Greise's daughter Taryn died. The investigating trooper said Taryn had not been using a child restraint or seat belt, as state law requires.
Watkins often sees children riding in cars unprotected by belts, booster seats or infant seats. He tries to do something about it: He calls 911.
But he has failed in several attempts, he says, to get police and troopers to enforce North Carolina's child passenger law.
"Yesterday I saw three children under the age of 2 that weren't buckled - one in the front seat and two in the back of this little Honda Civic going down U.S. 264 near Smithfield Road," said Watkins, 50, of Raleigh.
"The dispatcher started arguing with me about what road I was on. He said, 'No sir, you're on U.S. 64.' He didn't seem interested in the least about three children in a small vehicle unrestrained."
For the record, they were both right: The Knightdale Bypass is U.S. 64/264.
When the dispatcher finally got the Highway Patrol on the line, it didn't matter anyway.
"The Highway Patrol would take the information, but they never asked for a license number or where I was at the time," Watkins said. "They just said, 'We'll keep an eye out.'"
The Highway Patrol is investigating the Christmas Day crash that killed Taryn Greise, and the investigating trooper is consulting the Harnett County district attorney about possible charges.
A spokesman says that, despite Watkins' frustration, troopers do their best to follow up on such reports.
"If you see a violation that is endangering children, get a vehicle description and a tag number if you can - and call us," said Sgt. Jorge Brewer, a Highway Patrol spokesman. "We'll put out a broadcast, and attempts will be made to intercept that vehicle, if at all possible. The same goes for people speeding, people that appear to be drunk. We get calls like that, and we take action more often than not."
A lot depends on where the problem is and whether an available trooper is close at hand, Brewer added.
Questions about child safety restraints were raised after fatal crashes this month at railroad crossings in Durham and Efland. Three children were thrown from their cars and died. Witnesses said the two Durham children were not buckled in. Results of those investigations have not been made public.
Watkins says police give more attention to other problems.
"They're great at stopping speeders," he said. "But when it comes to stopping a car with a child that's not restrained, they're not doing their whole job."
Other readers have joined Watkins recently in arguing that officers should do more to enforce seat-belt rules for children.
"I too have noticed children without proper restraints," Susan L. Williams of Raleigh said by e-mail. "Where are the police?"
William L. Hall manages the occupant safety program at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center in Chapel Hill. He says more parents are protecting their children, and fewer children are being hurt in crashes, because of North Carolina's child passenger law.
"We find that a vast majority of drivers do buckle up children in cars - 80 to 95 percent or so, depending on the child's age," Hall said. "As children get older, they tend to get buckled up less often. They may fuss more, and parents may give in."
Education about seat belt and other safety issues can be just as important as law enforcement, safety experts say. But Hill gives high marks to police and troopers across the state.
"We really believe that the North Carolina law enforcement community really supports the child-restraint provisions," Hall said. "But there's only so much officers can do."