State lawmakers appear ready to finally require special protection for children too big for child seats but too small to properly use seat belts.
Without dissent, the House Transportation Committee voted Wednesday to mandate booster seats for any youngster who is at least 5 years old but younger than 8, and no taller than 4-foot-9 inches tall. The requirement can be met with not only after-market boosters but any built-in child restraint or other types of belting designed specifically for children of that size.
Wednesday's action on HB 2154 marks what could be a turning point in the multi-year battle over whether the state has a legitimate role. Prior bills have been beaten back amid arguments that parents know best what is good for their children.
But Rep. Nancy McLain, R-Bullhead City, who had been one of those foes, told colleagues she had an epiphany of sorts after speaking with a pediatrician.
She said they pointed out that current law already requires anyone younger than 16 to wear a seat belt. While those younger than 5 are required to be in special car seats, McLain said that means anyone older than that is simply strapped into a regular seat belt.
"Obviously, a child is not going to fit," she said. More to the point, McLain said she now believes that a young child wearing a seat belt designed for adults is more likely to be injured.
Sara Bode, a pediatrician at Phoenix Children's Hospital, said most parents want to do what's best for their children. And she said it's obvious when putting an infant into a car seat, what kind of protection is provided.
But she said it's not obvious to them, in belting their slightly older children in, that a booster seat is needed.
"If you are in an adult seat belt and you're that age, it may look OK on the outside," Bode said. "But when you're in a crash it is not helping you at all."
In fact, she said, it may be creating new problems.
"Kids that are in an adult seat belt can just fly out underneath, Bode said. "Otherwise, even if they stay within the adult seat belt, they're getting major head and neck injuries or abdominal injuries because it's not in the right location."
Stuart Goodman, a lobbyist for AAA Arizona, said Arizona is one of only three states in the country without a booster seat requirement.
The same committee also approved a related measure to forbid anyone younger than 18 from riding in the back of an open pickup truck unless they are somehow belted in to keep them from flying out.
Rep. Doris Goodale, R-Kingman, related several instances of teens being killed.
Last October, she said, Cooper Courtney, a 16-year-old football player at Verado High School, died after he fell out of the bed of a pickup truck. And just this past weekend, two teens traveling in the bed of a pickup truck on I-17 north of Phoenix died after the driver lost control and the tire blew out, causing the vehicle to roll several times.
Goodale also argued that HB 2224 makes sense in protecting other motorists. She said that's why there are laws requiring vehicle operators to fasten any loads they are carrying to keep them from falling out onto the road and creating a hazard.
"If you go hunting and you catch an elk, you have to strap your dead elk in the truck, but not your child," she said.
But the measure, which has failed in prior efforts, still faces opposition.
Rep. Rick Gray, R-Sun City, said if this is such a great idea, why limit the requirement to those younger than 18.
Gray also noted that the requirement does not apply on tribal lands, "which means they get special privileges, they can do whatever they want, but the rest of us in Arizona are restricted."
The measure which now goes to the full House has other exceptions, including organized parades, vehicles on private property and when driving at or below 35 mph.