A child is the most precious cargo a vehicle will ever carry. It is only fitting that our laws seek to protect them to the fullest extent possible. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Deborah Hersman recently emphasized the agency's push to have all children 8 and younger transported in some type of safety seat.
Hersman said, "As state legislatures begin their 2011 sessions, the NTSB is calling upon legislators to pass laws that ensure that all children up to 8 years old are using child safety and booster seats."
Only 29 states, the District of Columbia and three territories currently have such a law in place. Six states require safety seats for children 6 and younger, 12 states set the age at 5, four states (and territories) set the age at 4. Florida stands alone by only requiring children 3 and younger to be transported in a safety seat.
Each year, around 1,800 children under 14 are killed, and more than 280,000 are injured in motor vehicles accidents. Auto crash injuries are the leading cause of death in children between 2 and 12 years old. The NTSB reports that crashes are responsible for approximately one of every three injury deaths of children 13 years old and younger. The agency believes proper child safety restraints can reduce these needless deaths.
Interestingly, the NTSB's recommendation does not apply to school buses - the mode of transportation over 23.5 million children use daily. According to the NTSB, research has shown that because of their design, school buses are actually one of the safest forms of transportation on the road. On average, only seven school bus passengers are fatally injured annually. Of course even the death of one child is unacceptable, so the NTSB continues to provide resources and training for school bus operators.
North Carolina's Child Passenger Safety Law
North Carolina is one of the 29 states already in compliance with the NTSB's child transportation safety recommendations. While North Carolina's child transportation law is quite specific and comprehensive, it unfortunately has few teeth to compel compliance.
Under the North Carolina Child Passenger Safety Law (G.S. 20-137.1), children younger than 8 years old and weighing less than 80 pounds must be properly restrained in a child restraint device (CRD). CRDs for children under 5 years and under 40 pounds must be secured in the back seat of a vehicle if the vehicle has a back seat. A CRD may be placed in the front seat if the CRD is made for use with air bags.
Children between 40 and 80 pounds may ride in a belt-positioning booster seat. If there is no lap and shoulder belt to secure such a booster seat, children over 40 pounds may ride with just a lap beat. At age 8 or at 80 pounds (whichever comes first), a child may ride in a car without a booster seat and just a seat belt.
Exemptions to the Law
North Carolina's law does not apply to ambulances or other emergency vehicles, and does not apply to other vehicles (like school buses) that are not federally required to have seat belts.
A final exemption could be interpreted to undermine the law as a whole. It states that the child restraint provisions discussed above do not apply "if all seating positions equipped with child passenger restraint systems or seat belts are occupied."
Punishments (Or the Lack Thereof)
Though North Carolina's requirements for CRDs are detailed, failure to follow them results in few consequences. Regardless of how many children are improperly secured in a vehicle, the maximum fine the law allows for a CRD violation is $25. A violator may also be required to pay court fees around $120. Additionally, the law allows all to be forgiven if a violator buys a CRD and brings it to court to show the judge.
The harshest penalty for violating the Child Passenger Safety Law is two driver's license points. Insurance points cannot be imposed. To put two driver's license points into perspective, the North Carolina Driver's Handbook states that if you accumulate 12 license points within three years, you might have your license suspended for 60 days.
On its face, North Carolina's Child Passenger Safety Law complies with the NTSB's push to require all children under 8 to be restrained in a child safety seat. Exemptions and lack of punishment, however, seem to significantly impact the law's effectiveness.
Regardless of the legal requirements, parents should take appropriate steps to secure their child in a vehicle. The life of a child is too precious to put at risk.