Originally published in The Akron Beacon Journal

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Friday, March 2, 2001



Beacon Journal staff writer

When two children died after an overloaded car slammed into a South Arlington Street utility pole on Labor Day in 1997, authorities threw the book at the 28-year-old driver.

Fred H. Thomas III was indicted on 22 counts ranging from aggravated vehicular homicide and drunken driving to failing to maintain an assured clear distance.

Conspicuously absent from the laundry list was any mention of the fact that none of the six children, ages 4 to 15, shoe-horned into the back seat of the 1984 Oldsmobile Delta 88 wore seat belts.

The police weren't being lenient. You can't charge someone for violating a law that doesn't exist. In the eyes of Ohio, there's no difference between a 4-year-old and a 40-year-old: Neither is required to be belted while riding in the back seat of a vehicle.

The state demands only drivers and front-seat passengers to buckle up. The only exception is that all passengers must wear a seat belt if the driver is younger than 18 or is driving under a temporary permit.

Ohio pays a bloody toll for unprotected children, an Akron Beacon Journal analysis of federal crash data found.

More than a third of the 279 children -- ages 4 to 15 years old -- who died in Ohio crashes from 1994 through 1999 were riding legally unbuckled in back seats.

Slightly more -- 38 percent -- of the 294 children seriously injured during the same six years were unrestrained riding in back seats, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's comprehensive database of fatal crashes.

Although it's impossible to say for sure that a state law requiring all children to be belted in would be effective, the crash data indicates it might: Only about a quarter of the children killed sitting in back seats were buckled in, compared to almost half riding in the front.

Failing grades

The gap in Ohio's law is the main reason the state received a failing grade last month from the National Safe Kids Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention of childhood injuries.

Ohio's statutes earned a low-F grade -- less than 40 out of a possible 100 points -- when compared to a model law created by the group.

The report criticized Ohio because it only requires children 3 or younger, or who weigh less than 40 pounds to wear seat belts at all times. Only two other states -- Pennsylvania and Idaho -- allow 4-year-olds to ride unbuckled in the back seat.

``Any child who is unrestrained in a car is a potential human projectile,'' said Angela D. Mickalide, program director of the Safe Kids Campaign. ``The fact that children are being allowed to ride in the back seat unrestrained is unconscionable.''

Changing Ohio's law might not have saved Fred H. Thomas' 6-year-old son and a 15-year-old friend, both fatally injured in the Labor Day crash.

Thomas' license had been suspended because of a long history of traffic violations. And a month before the fatal crash, he was convicted of failing to use a child-restraint seat for a younger child. Thomas is serving a 13-year prison sentence now.

But there is little doubt that proper restraints -- child seats and belts -- save lives in crashes, the leading cause of death for children 6 to 14 years old, according to the NHTSA.

The agency's draft Child Restraint Systems Safety Plan, proposed last year, cites studies that found the proper use of infant seats, booster seats and safety belts cut the risk of fatal injuries in crashes by 71 percent, 54 percent and 45 percent, respectively.

Seat-belt stops?

Mickalide said Ohio isn't alone in needing to upgrade its seat belt law, which hasn't been changed significantly since 1986.

``From 1977 to 1985, all 50 states passed child-seat laws,'' Mickalide said. ``Many of these laws haven't been touched in two decades. We need our laws to catch up with our emerging technology.''

Ohio Rep. Jon M. Peterson, R-Delaware, agrees -- but so far he hasn't succeeded in changing the law.

Last year, Peterson sponsored House Bill 290, which would have made Ohio's seat belt law a ``primary'' enforcement statute -- meaning that police could cite motorists for the violation without another traffic offense. Seat belt compliance now is a secondary enforcement measure, meaning it cannot trigger a traffic stop.

While the bill would not have required back-seat passengers to wear seat belts, Peterson argued that it would have resulted in most children being buckled in.

``My bill was all about children,'' he said. ``When adults are buckled up, children are 90 percent of the time also buckled.

``That's why our bill didn't have a back-seat provision,'' he said.

Peterson's bill passed at the committee level, but was not put to a vote because of eleventh-hour fears that the bill's wording would run afoul of the Ohio Supreme Court's 1999 ruling that the state's tort reform law was unconstitutional.

Some opponents also argued that allowing police to stop motorists solely for seat-belt violations would infringe on ``civil liberties'' and would be a poor use of scarce law enforcement resources, Peterson acknowledged.

Some civil rights advocates were concerned that a primary enforcement seat belt law would allow potential racial profiling -- the use of minor traffic violations as a pretext for harassing blacks and other minorities.

But those objections wouldn't apply to a new bill introduced last month by Rep. Rex A. Damschroder, R-Fremont.

Damschroder's proposal, House Bill 113, would require all passengers wear a seat belt, but would keep enforcement as a secondary offense.

His bill also would make drivers subject to ticketing for any passengers not buckled up.

``It's exactly the same as in an airplane,'' said Damschroder, who has been a flight instructor for 33 years. ``In a plane, the pilot is in command. I see no reason it should not be the same in a car.''

Another representative, Joyce Beatty, D-Columbus, is preparing to introduce a bill early this month aimed at closing the law's age gap. It would require children up to age 12 to wear belts in both the back and front seats.

``What we're trying to do is extend the existing law,'' Beatty said. ``We have found that the law in Ohio for 3-year-olds and younger (requiring child seats) has done a good job.

``We think parents will welcome the idea of buckling up their older children.''

© Copyright 2001 The Akron Beacon Journal

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