PHOENIX -- Saying current state laws on seat belts can kill and maim young children, a Senate panel decided Wednesday that they should be required to be harnessed in booster seats while riding in cars.
The unanimous vote by the Senate Committee on Public Safety and Human Services followed testimony by David Notrica, the trauma medical director at Phoenix Children's Hospital, that simply buckling a child in a regular seat belt can often cause more harm than good. The measure, SB 1010, now goes to the full Senate where its fate is uncertain: An identical measure died there last year.
Existing law requires that all front-seat occupants of a vehicle use installed seat belts when the vehicle is moving.
The law also says anyone younger than 16 must be belted, no matter where they are located. And infants and small children -- those younger than age 5 -- be in specially designed child seats.
Stuart Goodman, lobbyist for AAA Arizona, said the result is that once children turn 5, their parents simply put them in the car, buckle them up and presume they are safe.
Notrica said that's not the case.
He said seat belts were not designed for smaller people. The result, said the doctor, is when there is an accident, the belt does not hit the correct pressure points.
"So what happens during the crash is often the child will slide underneath the seat belt, the seat belt will slide off of the hips onto the abdomen,' Notrica explained to lawmakers.
"At the moment of impact, the seat belt actually causes intestinal damage that pushes against the spine,' he continued. "If the force is great enough, the child actually bends over the spine and the spine snaps, causing permanent paralysis.'
A booster seat, Notrica said, raises the child up a few inches "so that the seat belts that are in that car will do a better job of restraining the child during an accident.'
Under the terms of SB 1010, booster seats would be required for children age 5 thorough 8, with motorists who disobey the law subject to a $50 fine. But Sen. Linda Gray, R-Glendale, the sponsor of the measure, said that penalty would be waived if a motorist shows up in court with a receipt proving purchase of an acceptable booster seat.
Sen. Jim Waring, R-Phoenix, soon to be the father of twins, questioned the cost of both the special seats for small children and the booster seats that this bill now would require.
Goodman said the "Cadillac version' of infant seats can cost hundreds of dollars. But he said acceptable ones can be found in the $50 to $60 range.
And Goodman said booster seats can be purchased for as little as $15.
Gray said any fines collected for violating the existing child restraint law or the proposed booster seat law are put into a special fund to help purchase the items for those who cannot afford them.
The measure has an opt out of sorts for youngsters who are big for their age: They would no longer have to be in a booster seat once they reach four feet nine inches tall.