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New Florida car seat law takes effect Jan. 1

What do you do with kids who are too big for car seats but too little for a standard seat belt? The Florida Legislature says it has the answer, though some child advocates say the new law that takes effect on Jan. 1 doesn’t measure up to the rest of the nation or to recommendations of national safety experts.

After years of relentless pushing, child safety advocates persuaded Florida lawmakers to pass a law this spring designed to further protect children in moving motor vehicles. The law was signed by Gov. Rick Scott in June.

The law requires children to be put in federally approved car restraint seats through the age of 3 and either a car seat or booster seat, depending on the size of the child, for kids 4 and 5.

Until the law kicks in on Jan. 1, Florida will be one of only two states that do not require child booster seats for children after they turn 4.

“We’ve been working on this bill for 14 years,” said Karen Morgan, public policy manager for AAA The Auto Club Group in Tampa. “It’s been a long time.”

Still, there is a way to go,she said. The state still does not follow American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations that children be restrained in booster seats until they are 4 feet, 9 inches tall.

“Many states have moved to require child-safety laws through the age of 8,” she said.

Under Florida’s new law, a violation could cost up to three points on a license for the driver and an unspecified fine set at the discretion of the judge, Morgan said. The points can disappear, too, if the driver takes a safety class.

There are exemptions, including children being driven by unpaid drivers who are not in the child’s immediate family, children being transported for medical emergencies and children with a medical condition necessitating an exception. Parents bear the responsibility of putting their children in seats in cabs and limousines, and the operator of the for-hire vehicle is not liable, the law says.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says children improperly restrained when in traffic accidents is the leading cause of death for American kids between 5 and 14.

Charles Paidas, director of pediatric trauma surgery at Tampa General Hospital and vice dean of clinical affairs and graduate medical education with the University of South Florida, said seeing children hospitalized because of improper restraints in vehicle crashes is traumatic.

“I would say the entire health-care continuum is frustrated and saddened, from nurses and doctors to pharmacists and therapists,’’ he said. “It’s not just the child, either. We see what these devastating injuries do to the families as well.”

He applauded the efforts to bring about changes in the law. “It’s a little step,” he said, though he admitted the new law falls short of where most other states are.

Paidas said about 100 children a year undergo trauma surgery at Tampa General Hospital, many of whom would not be so severely injured if they were in the proper car seats or booster seats. Proper restraints, he said, could cut those serious injuries in half.

Bevin Maynard, child advocacy supervisor at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital, sees a lot of children injured in car crashes who weren’t properly strapped in. She helped spearhead the lobbying effort to get the law changed.

“It was a challenge,” she said.

Over the past few years there have been a lot of child advocates pushing for the law, but no single voice, she said. Last year, Maynard and others formed the Florida Booster Seat Coalition and began lobbying state legislators.

“We traveled constantly to Tallahassee,” she said.

A similar law was passed by the Legislature a few years ago and would have required safety seats for children up to 8 but was vetoed by then Gov. Jeb Bush, who advocated fewer government regulations.

“That was huge,” Maynard said. “At the time, that would have ranked us No. 1 nationally.”

Instead, kids only needed protective seats up to 3 years old and since then, she said, the rest of the nation passed Florida in protecting children in vehicles.

Though the new law requires booster or restraint seats for children up to 6, height has more to do with being safe than anything else, she said. A child under 4-foot-9 inches tall should be in a booster seat, no matter the age, she said.

“The magic number is not weight or age,” she said. “It’s height.”

Maynard said more work needs to be done to bring Florida in line with the rest of the nation, but for now, child advocates are satisfied with this step forward.

“It’s wonderful,” Maynard said. “We have two more ages that are safer.”

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