HUNTINGTON PARK : Program to Teach Car Safety to Latinos

The Huntington Park Police Department is expected to launch a three-year, $900,000 project next month to educate Latino residents on traffic and safety laws.

Based on a 1988 California Highway Patrol project that targeted migrant workers and other rural Latino populations, the program will focus on teaching children and their parents about laws regarding seat belts, child car seats and drunk driving.

"Public information is much more effective than just enforcement," said Chris Murphy, program coordinator for the California Office of Traffic Safety. "We know problems exist down there (in Huntington Park). Seat belt compliance is lower than in other parts of the state, and there's a high incidence of drinking and driving."

The city decided to seek funding for its Safe Ride program targeting the Latino population last year when a Police Department operation revealed that seat belt violations were a "major problem for us," said Huntington Park police Sgt. D. J. Fitzgerald.

During a five-day operation last October, the department issued 1,035 tickets for seat belt violations and 504 citations for child safety seat violations.

Because of language and cultural differences, many drivers are not obeying simple traffic safety laws, Fitzgerald said. The city's population is 95% Latino.

"Everything that you read is designed for an English-speaking community," he said. "Nobody has done anything for Spanish speakers."

Safe Ride will promote the use of child car seats through a car seat loan program, the only program of its kind in the Southeast area, Fitzgerald said. One hundred seats will be loaned to families for three-month periods at a nominal cost.

The penalty for driving with children who are not properly restrained is a $271 fine and one point on the driver's record for each child in the vehicle.

The safety program will include visits by a bilingual officer playing the role of a character dubbed "El Protector" to all city schools and community and civic meetings. The officer will talk about the importance of wearing seat belts and using car seats.

The program will also be staffed by a community service officer who will administer the car seat loan program, and a patrol officer who will work full time enforcing traffic laws.

The grant for the program also covers equipment such as a speed trailer, a hand-held alcohol test device and a remote-control car to be used in demonstrations for children. About $70,000 of the grant will go to overtime for sobriety checkpoints.

The $704,799 federal grant, administered by the California Office of Traffic Safety to fund the 39-month Safe Ride project, should receive final approval by Oct. 1, Murphy said. The city will fund the remaining $200,000 of the project.

After a three-month organizational period, program officials should be preaching seat belt safety by January, city officials said.

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