Like many other rambunctious 6-year-olds, Carter Kole was looking forward to dumping his booster car seat as a vestige of his ... well, younger days.
California state law allows children by age 6 or 60 pounds to leave behind those cushioned, strapped-in back seats.
But now, Gov. Jerry Brown has done the unthinkable to Carter and young passengers statewide: He pushed booster seat freedom to age 8, or 4 feet 9 inches -- whichever comes first.
"Oh, my gosh,'' said Carter, a forlorn first-grader. "I don't want this new law to be true!''
Even his mother, Kristina Kole -- who likes the new law -- felt sympathetic. "Bummer, huh?'' she told Carter last Friday on his way home from San Jose's Booksin Elementary School.
Carter's angst was echoed by other students at the school but not by many parents, even though most were unaware of the law that goes into effect Jan. 1.
"Just because he's met the age requirement doesn't mean I feel like he should be out of his car booster seat," Kole said. "It's definitely my opinion that he is safer in it."
Parents Julie Wong and Mandy Kuder agree. Both already insist that their children remain in booster seats until they grow taller, including Wong's 7-year-old daughter, Julia, Kuder's 6-year-old son, Jack, and even her 10-year-old daughter, Ashley, much to the fifth-grader's chagrin.
"For me, it's when that seat belt hits her chest," Kuder said. "If you were to get into an accident with the seat belt coming up at her neck, she's getting strangled instead of saved. So until it hits her at the chest, where it should be, she'll stay in the booster seat."
Neck vs. chest
Their concerns are among the reasons behind the new legislation, signed by Brown on Oct. 4.
Sponsored by Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, the law is also based on longtime federal recommendations from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, National Transportation Safety Board and the American Academy of Pediatrics, among other groups.
It addresses a problem many parents struggle with already: Once their children are out of booster car seats at age 6 or 60 pounds, many still don't fit into adult seat belts properly, said Sonja Atkins, a coordinator for Safe Kids California in Sacramento. The statewide group co-sponsored the law along with the California Alliance of YMCAs and California Coalition for Children's Safety and Health.
"From all the research that has been done over the past decade, we know that kids under the age of 8 don't fare well in car crashes unless they're in a booster seat or car seat," Atkins said. She noted that national studies show that keeping kids ages 4 to 8 in booster seats reduces their risk of injury by nearly 60 percent, compared with the use of seat belts alone.
Experts say seat belts are supposed to hit across the shoulder and upper chest area, while the seat belt's lap band is supposed to hit the hip area, touching the upper thigh so that in an accident, a person's bones are protecting their bodies.
But very often, Atkins said, the lap belt portion rides up on a child's soft belly tissue, and the shoulder portion of the seat belt tends to ride up near their neck or face.
"Many times, kids are really bugged by it and put that part of the belt behind their back or under their arms," Atkins said, which during a collision can result in abdominal and spinal cord injuries.
"Six years old is not enough," Atkins said of the current law. "And weight has nothing to do with a proper-fitting seat belt. It has much more to do with height and how tall you are in your seat."
Bill vetoed twice
Similar legislation was twice vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said it was more important to educate parents on the need for safety than to impose another law.
But a spokesman for the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration on Friday applauded Brown and the state for enacting the new law, saying that the agency "has always encouraged parents and caregivers to use booster seats until the adult seat belt fits the child correctly. And the provisions of the law are in keeping with federal recommendations."
The new law actually makes California -- the nation's leader in 2000 when it created the toughest child-safety seat standards in the U.S. -- a laggard by comparison. Atkins said at least 30 other states already have increased the booster seat requirements to the newest standard.
And parents say having a law behind them helps.
"A lot of time, kids don't want to do the things you tell them," said Wong, who lives in Willow Glen and works at Santa Clara University. "But it makes it easier when I can say: 'It's the law. Do you want mommy to go to jail?' "
Contact Tracy Seipel at 408-275-0140.
Once your child completely outgrows a forward-facing child safety seat with an internal harness, you should switch to a belt-positioning booster seat. Children should be placed in a belt-positioning booster seat when they reach the height and weight limits of their forward-facing safety seat. Check the seat's label or owner's manual for the limits.
If you have a combination child safety seat/booster seat that your child was using with a harness, just remove the harness to convert it to a belt-positioning booster seat.
You should use a belt-positioning booster seat in the back seat of your vehicle, always with the vehicle lap-shoulder seat belt.
Source: The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia