New Texas laws put premium on safety

Whether your summer vacation includes a drive down the street to Six Flags or across the country, you should be aware of new driver-safety laws whose violation could add a pretty penny to your vacation costs.

Several Texas laws have gone into effect since last fall. Among them are: safety belt requirements for all passengers; no texting or cellphone use while driving for those under 18; and no cellphone use in a school zone.

On Tuesday, the grace period ended for another new law that changed the booster seat requirements to include any child younger than 8 who is also under 4 feet 9 inches. The old law required children under age 5 and less than 36 inches to ride in child safety seats.

There are numerous mistakes parents can make in using car safety and booster seats, said Dana Walraven, injury prevention coordinator for Safe Kids Tarrant County, a community outreach effort by Cook Children's Healthcare System. Safe Kids conducts car seat clinics, which are free to the public, each week in Arlington and Fort Worth for parents and children to make sure that they are properly using their safety seats.

"Most of the mistakes we notice are when a child doesn't fit in the car seat by weight or height," Walraven said. Parents and kids are often too eager to move up to a booster seat when the child isn't ready, she said.

"If they're 1 or 2 years old, you don't want them in a booster seat," she said. "Parents should consider height, weight and maturity level."

Another mistake is that the safety seat isn't properly placed in the car. There is no standard operating procedure for placing cars seats, Walraven said.

"Every car seat fits differently in every car," she said. Often, parents will use both the seat belt and a latch system to secure the car seat, when in general just one of those procedures should be used, she said.

For parents who can't afford a car or booster seat, the Texas Department of Health Services gives away free seats to low-income families through its Safe Riders program, said Johnny Humphreys, manager of the program.

In the past four months, Safe Riders has given away 540 booster seats and 2,613 car seats in 841 classes it offers to parents across the state, Humphreys said. The program has distributed an additional 5,000 car seats to be given out at events around the state, he added.

Safe Kids also has a program of providing car seats and boosters to low-income families, with some seats costing as little as $15, Walraven said. Through weekly seat checks and some quarterly events, Safe Kids checked out 1,010 car seats last year.

Most children outgrow forward-facing car safety seats at about 40 pounds and 4-years-old, Humphreys said. Manufacturers are required to put labels on the car seat to spell out the weight limits of the product, as well as provide the manufacturer's name and phone number.

"Typically, ages 4 to 8 are the booster seat prime ages," he said. "Seat belts are not going to effectively cover them without a booster."

Parents can choose from two main types of booster seats -- high-back or chair-style. They do exactly what the name suggests -- boost the child higher in their seat so lap and shoulder belts fit better. Otherwise, a child can suffer injuries that can include internal organ damage from the lap band resting on the stomach instead of the hips, and spine damage if the shoulder strap is too high on the body.

Texas was just one of six states without a booster seat requirement before the new law passed last year, Humphreys said.

The Texas Transportation Department's annual Click It or Ticket campaign is cracking down on that and other seat belt laws, such as unbuckled drivers and passengers, and drivers who don't properly secure children in their vehicles.

Last year, the campaign led to 33,398 safety belt citations and 6,259 child seat citations, according to Tracie Mendez, manager of the driver behavior program for the department.

While seat belt usage in the country is at a record high of 84 percent (compared with less than 60 percent in 1993), there are still 45 million Americans who do not buckle up when riding in a car or truck, according to the department.

Around 38 unbuckled motorists a day die in crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Teenagers, young adults, men and pickup occupants have the lowest seat belt usage rates, according to NHTSA. Those who drive between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., as well as rural motorists, also tend to not wear their seat belts.

So be sure to review traffic safety rules before you hit the road with your family this summer. It could save you some money, and maybe your life.

Teresa M cUsic's column appears Fridays.