The Fight Against Crime: Notes From The Front : Child's Safety Rides on Right Use of Seats

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some cops might look the other way when they spot a mother clutching a fussy baby in a moving car. But John Teetor isn't one of them.

Teetor, a veteran motorcycle officer in the Valley Traffic Division, reserves a special place in purgatory for motorists who fail to put young children in the required safety seats. Can't afford a $70 car seat, you say? He will be happy to tell you where you can get one at reduced cost, but if you ignore the law he "won't hesitate a second" to issue you a ticket that carries a whopping $271 fine, something he does an average of twice a week.

"I stopped one last Wednesday. The driver says, 'Well, the seat's in my wife's car and we were in a hurry,' " Teetor recalled. "They went buzzing by me on Nordhoff at 50 mph and they have the baby sitting in the lap of the mother, oblivious or indifferent or I don't know what."

Thirteen years after passage of a state law requiring car seats for all children under the age of 4 who weigh less than 40 pounds, local police and child safety advocates say that too many children are still at risk, either because their parents are not using the equipment or, more commonly, are using it incorrectly.

In 1994, 56 children under age 4 died in traffic accidents on California roadways. In all but 17 cases, they were not strapped into a car seat at all or were riding in one that had been installed improperly, according to the California Highway Patrol.

Sgt. Bill Bowen, who heads the Valley's traffic safety unit, said that based on how frequently the law is violated, the fatality count could easily be much higher. Last month, the division gave free car seats to 30 needy families who had been cited for violating the safety seat requirement. But the problem is not limited to low-income parents, Bowen said.

"We periodically set up seat-belt checkpoints and last time we had a man drive up in a brand new expensive convertible. He has this 3-year-old sitting on the floor of the front seat of this $50,000 car and he said he couldn't afford the extra $50 or $100 for a child safety seat," Bowen said.

Before the giveaway program, about two dozen senior traffic officers attended an eight-hour, child-seat safety course sponsored by SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A., an Inglewood-based lobbying and information group. Because the LAPD was providing the free seats, it had to ensure proper installation to protect the department from liability.

SafetyBeltSafe estimates that 95% of all car seats are used improperly, greatly increasing the chance of death or serious injury.

Officer Tom Souza, training coordinator for the Valley Traffic Division, was a course graduate. The father of two adult daughters who were never required to ride in car seats as youngsters, Souza said he was shocked by how much there is to know.

Souza said he hopes to make installation techniques part of the mandatory training for patrol officers, so that when they stop drivers, they can help educate them on the spot.

According to Stephanie Tombrello, executive director of SafetyBeltSafe, some of the most common mistakes parents make are putting a rear-facing infant seat in a front seat equipped with a passenger-side air bag, switching babies who are under a year old to a front-facing position, and not buckling the seat in tightly enough.

Each year, the organization holds an annual checkup day at the Los Angeles Zoo--this year's is April 25, call (310) 673-2666 for information.

But there is no place confused parents can routinely bring their cars to make sure the seats are put in right, Tombrello said.

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