ROAD WORRIER:

Child deaths frustrate watchful drivers

Staff WriterDecember 29, 2009 

  • North Carolina law requires drivers to make sure that all children younger than 16 - in front and back seats - are buckled up.

    The law sets minimum standards. Experts at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center recommend higher levels of protection. They provide detailed guidance and links to local resources at www.buckleupnc.org.

    The law says:

    Children younger than 8 and lighter than 80 pounds must be secured in child restraints that meet federal safety standards and that are right for each child's height and weight. (Seat belts are required for adults and other child riders.)

    In cars with front passenger seat air bags, children younger than 5 and lighter than 40 pounds must ride in the back seat if possible, unless the child restraint is designed for use with air bags or the air bag has been deactivated.

    Violators are fined $25 plus court costs and two driver's license points (but no insurance points).

    Safety experts recommend:

    Infants and toddlers should ride in rear-facing child restraints at least until age 2. After that, they should use front-facing harness restraints until they outgrow them - usually when they reach 40 to 80 pounds. Belt-positioning booster seats can be used for children between 40 and 80 pounds, with combined lap and shoulder belts.

    Children should switch to belts when they're big enough for both lap and shoulder belts to fit correctly - often around 80 pounds in weight and 4 feet, 9 inches in height. Tucking a shoulder belt under the shoulder or behind the back is dangerous and illegal for all riders.

    No child or adult should ride unbelted in the back of a van, station wagon or truck bed.

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."

Enlighten the Road Worrier: blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or 919-829-4527 or bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com. Please include address and daytime phone. Comments, questions and tips welcome.

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