Child Safety and State Laws About Car Seats and More

Rules and regulations vary by state

Caucasian sisters holding hands in back seat of car
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The safety laws that protect our children, such as car seat mandates, can vary depending on where one lives. After all, if it is safest to keep your kids in a booster seat until they are at least eight years old in one state, shouldn't that be standard practice everywhere?

Understanding the safety laws in your state can help you make sure you are following them but can also help you get laws changed if they don't measure up to the best standards in other states.

Car Safety Laws

Of all state safety laws, parents are usually most familiar with their state's car seat laws -- perhaps even more so than with the latest car seat guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommend that infants and toddlers ride in a rear-facing car seat in the back seat of the car until they are two years old or until they have reached the weight and height limits of their car seat.

They also recommend that toddlers and preschoolers should sit in a forward-facing car seat with harness straps in the back seat as long as possible and until they reach the weight and height limits of their car seat. Meanwhile, older preschoolers and school-age children should move to a belt-positioning booster seat when they reach the weight and height harness strap limits of their forward-facing car seat.

Older school-age children should not move to regular seat belts until they are "old enough and large enough" for the seat belts to protect them properly, which usually isn't until they are 4 feet 9 inches tall (57 inches) and are between 8 and 12 years old.

Kids should continue to sit in the back seat until they are at least 13 years old

Unfortunately, most states are still working to keep up with previous car seat guidelines and many have standards that are far below the latest AAP guidelines. In fact, several states still don't require that kids sit in a booster seat until they are at least 8 years old, which should perhaps be a minimum standard.

Remember that no matter what your minimum state car seat laws are, you should usually follow the latest AAP car seat guidelines to keep your kids safe.

Other Important Car Safety Laws 

Pickup Truck Laws: Although the AAP recommends that children should never be allowed to ride in the cargo area of a pickup truck, many states don't have any restrictions on children or teens riding in cargo areas of pickup trucks.

School Bus Seat Belt Laws: Only six states (California, Texas, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey and New York) require seat belts on school buses. 

Cell Phone Laws: Fourteen states (including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Utah, and Washington) and the District of Columbia ban talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving, and many more ban texting. Remember that cell phone use and texting while driving is a major distraction, so don't do it, no matter what your law says right now.

Graduated Licensing Laws: All states have some form of graduated driver licensing (GDL) laws, but none meet the minimum requirements of the Safe Teen and Novice Driver Uniform Protection Act (STANDUP Act).

Remember that teens have high crash rates and that GDL laws reduce crashes.

Unattended Children in Cars: Surprisingly, even though over 200 kids a year die when they are forgotten or left unattended in hot cars, fewer than half of all states actually have laws against leaving children alone in a car

A a new rule issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will require rear view cameras on all passenger vehicles by May 2016 to eliminate the rear blind spot and reduce the number of backover accidents and tragedies. Since these mirrors aren't yet standard on all cars or trucks, you might forget to make sure your new vehicle has a rear view camera when you buy it.

Like previous car safety laws, car manufacturers didn't institute the latest car safety innovations until they were mandated by law to do so, which is why the rear view camera law is important. For example, only a few cars had an interior trunk release mechanism or safer power windows until laws went into effect to reduce the number of accidents and tragedies in and around cars.

Child Safety Laws

Although they don't get as much attention, there are plenty of other child safety laws that could protect our kids and reduce the high number of accidents and tragedies that we unfortunately hear about all too often.

Some of these child safety laws, which are far from uniform from state to state, include:

Bicycle Helmet Laws: Fewer than half of states require bicycle helmet laws for young riders

Gun Safety Laws (Child Access Prevention and Safe Storage Laws): More than half of states do have state gun laws that hold firearm owners responsible if children get access to unsecured guns. It would help if every state was on board.

ATV Safety Laws: Although nearly all states have some type of ATV safety laws, none go as far as the ATV safety recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The AAP supports laws that "prohibit the use of ATVs, on- or off-road, by children and adolescents younger than 16 years."

Carbon Monoxide Detectors: While about half of states have laws requiring the installation of carbon monoxide detectors in certain buildings, that hardly means that even all of the people in those states are protected from carbon monoxide, as many laws just apply to new residential construction. Stronger laws apply to all rental buildings and even older houses, with a penalty being applied if they are sold or transferred to another person and aren't in compliance with the law.

Fireworks: Most states allow some or all fireworks. Keep in mind that local fireworks laws might also place other restrictions on the use of fireworks where you live and that the American Academy of Pediatrics is against the use of personal fireworks and instead encourages parents to take their kids to a professional fireworks show instead.

Reporting Child Abuse: While all states have mandatory reporting laws for child abuse and neglect, those state laws do vary on who is required to make those reports and to whom they are supposed to report the abuse. Fewer than half of states require all people to report abuse, while in other states only people in certain professions, such as social workers, teachers, physicians and child care workers, must report abuse.

Safe Haven Laws: All 50 states now have Safe Haven Laws, with Nebraska being the last state to enact their law, which allow a parent of an unwanted newborn to leave the baby with a safe haven provider without any consequences as long as the baby has not been abused or neglected. The laws vary in how old the baby may be (three to 30 days), who may leave the baby, and where the baby may be left (hospital versus police, fire stations, a church, etc).

Anti-Bullying Laws: All states have some form of anti-bullying laws. The best anti-bullying laws, like those enacted in Delaware and Massachusetts, have clauses for counseling and cyberbullying.

Swimming Pool Fence Laws: The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) provides a handbook with guidelines for pool barriers designed to prevent kids from getting into pools and spas, and the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act of 2008 provided grants to encourage state pool safety laws be enacted, but few states have comprehensive laws that require pool fences.

Water Safety: A number of states do require that children wear a Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device on boats and personal watercraft.

How Are Your State's Child Safety Laws?

Although you can work to improve the child safety laws in your state, you can also follow the best safety guidelines instead of the minimum standards. Put a fence around your backyard pool, lock up your guns securely and install a carbon monoxide detector in your home, even if state laws don't require you to do so.

Sources:

American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement. Child Passenger Safety. Pediatrics 2011;127:788-793.

Governors Highway Safety Association. Child Passenger Safety Laws. Accessed March 2012.

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Laws and Regulations. Accessed. April 2013.

National Conference of State Legislatures. Carbon Monoxide Detectors State Statutes. Accessed March 2012.

Safe Kids USA. Safety Laws. Accessed. April 2012.

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