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Booster Seat Bill Gets a Boost in Committee

Following the passage of last year of legislation allowing police to pull over unbuckled drivers, lawmakers are revving up another effort to increase car passenger safety this year.

This time, their target can’t yet take the wheel.

The Senate Transportation Committee on Tuesday unanimously approved a proposal by Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, and Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-Miami Beach, to require passengers between the ages of four and seven years old be seated in booster seats, not just buckled in. The law would only apply to children under 4 feet 9 inches.

Buoyed by the success last year in requiring primary enforcement of the seat belt law, boosters of the child seat measure (SB 316, HB 387) said it was necessary to close a gap in coverage of existing safety laws.

“Current Florida law allows for children age four to seven to be restrained by a seat belt, so it is law that they be restrained, but these seat belts are designed for adults,” Altman said during a news conference before the favorable committee vote. “So we find ourselves in a situation here in Florida where we have laws to protect adults, laws to protect children age one to three, but this category…are not safe in an adult safety belt. We’re not providing the law equally and fairly across the board to some of our most vulnerable citizens.”

Altman painted the need for the booster seat law in stark terms.

“The leading cause of death for children and teenagers is automobile crashes,” he said. “We have an epidemic. We lose 40,000 Americans a year, more than all the wars combined. We must do a better job in highway safety and it must begin with our children.”

Altman said Florida was one of three states that does not require booster seats for young children, joined only by Arizona and South Dakota.

Glorioso, who sponsored the 2009 primary seat belt law, said it had increased seat belt usage in Florida by five percent and reduced deaths by 350 last year. He said there would be a similar effect from requiring booster seats - estimating it would save 175 fatalities and 1,900 non-fatal injuries.

“Seat belts save lives period,” he said. “We need to do this now for one reason and one reason only: it will save the lives of our children. One of our (duties) in government is to protect the citizens we serve and this will protect our children.”

Giving the booster law the same veneer of bipartisan support that Glorioso’s seat belt law partnership last year with Sen. Nan Rich provided, Democratic co-sponsor Rep. Richard Steinberg, agreed that state law regarding child car passengers needed improvement.

“People assume because they’re following the law that their children are safe,” Steinberg said. “Only to find out in the event of an accident that their children were not safe and that they could have done something more, spent merely $15 to save that child from having significant injury.”

The bill has passed the Legislature before, but was vetoed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush in 2001.

“I’m a father of three children who’ve all grown up in booster seats,” Altman said. “Kids want to sit in these things. They elevate them, they can see outside better, they have to sit in the seat belt, but they’re low and they can’t see, so really, if the kids had a vote, they’d vote for this too.”

The booster seat bill is backed by AAA Auto Club South, which has long argued for more driver safety regulations in states. Amy Stracki, AAA’s Managing Director of Traffic Safety Advocacy, said that in the last two years 26 children between 4 years old and 9 died in car accidents and 66,000 were injured. Forty-percent of them were not wearing seat belts at all because they could not fit appropriately in adult belts, she said.

“I don’t understand why it hasn’t been enacted sooner,” Stracki told the News Service in a telephone interview.

Having won the Senate Transportation Committee’s approval Tuesday, the measure goes next to the Criminal Justice Committee and has also been referred to Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations. The House version of the bill was similarly referred to three committees.

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