MIDVALE — As program manager of Salt Lake County's Safe Kids Coalition, May Romo takes to the streets to teach parents about the importance of using child safety seats.
On Thursday afternoon, Romo was measuring children at the Midvale Harvest Days celebration "because every parent wants to know how tall their kid is, right?"
Romo's underlying motivation was to teach parents about proper use of child safety booster seats. And a study, published this week in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, offers troubling insight into the use of boosters and safety seats:
• As children age, they are less likely to be properly restrained, with dramatic drops for children over age 4.
• There are significant racial and ethnic disparities in the appropriate use of child passenger restraints, including a ten-fold difference between the numbers of white children using restraints, and the fewer number of black and Hispanic children who use car restraints. There is also a higher proportion of minority children who are prematurely transitioned to seat belts from protective child safety seats.
For Beatrice Vasquez, Thursday's event provided an opportunity to convince her 8-year-old son R. J. that he isn't tall enough to simply wear a seat belt while traveling in the car. He still requires a booster seat.
"It helps them understand. But if mom tells him, it's me harping on him about one more thing. If it comes from someone else, they understand it's necessary," the Midvale mom said.
The new study, conducted by University of Michigan researchers Dr. Michelle Macy and Dr. Gary L. Freed, found that few children remain rear facing after age 1 and less than 2 percent use a booster seat after age 7.
The researchers examined restraint use of more than 21,000 children under age 13.
"Within each age group, minority children demonstrated lower proportions of age-appropriate restraint use compared with white children," Macy and Freed wrote.
But even among white children up to age 3, just 17 percent were using rear-facing safety seats as recommended. Experts recommend that children ride in rear facing seats until they weigh 35 pounds.
While all parents need to learn this information, the researchers wrote that programs are needed "to address the motivations of parents from various cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, and for drivers who do not use seat belts themselves."
Janet Brooks, child advocacy manager at Primary Children's Medical Center, said community partners have ongoing educational efforts to teach ethnic minority parents about state laws and best practices. Many come from countries that do not have these laws and they are unfamiliar with the importance of child safety restraints, she said.
"Cost is an issue for some of our immigrant families who are just trying to put food on the table and find a place to live," Brooks said.
Romo said Salt Lake County public health educators work closely with private partners that resettle refugees such as Catholic Community Services and International Rescue Committee.
The Salt Lake Valley Health Department offers classes on appropriate use of car seats to Spanish-speaking parents. As of July, 135 parents have attended the classes. "That's in a seven-month period and we're not even finished with the year. We've already doubled what we did last year," Romo said.
Romo said Salt Lake County's Safe Kids coalition also offers low-cost child safety seats to low-income families.
Primary Children's Medical Center, too, distributes free car seats to qualifying families during the Junior League of Salt Lake City's annual CARE Fair.
"We don't have any lack of business, that's for sure. We're busy the entire time," Brooks said.
Aside from obtaining age-appropriate passenger safety seats, parents need to know how to properly install the seats. Trained installation specialists are available statewide to help parents learn proper techniques. Visit Safe Kids Utah http://www.safekidsutah.org for information on local resources and general information on child safety seats.
Brooks said trainers occasionally encounter cultural issues with respect to use of child safety seats.
In some cultures, items that come in contact with children need to be blessed by priests or religious leaders to ensure they bring no harm to the child or their family, Brooks said.
Brooks said some tribal members in Utah live in remote areas. Their sole means of transportation are pickups that carry large water tanks because there is no running water in their homes. There are limited numbers of seats in the cabs of the vehicles so some people allow their children to ride unrestrained in the bed of the pickups. Those practices endanger those passengers.
Interestingly, tribal nations have some of the toughest seatbelt and booster laws in the nation. "But they're not being enforced," she said.
Urban dwellers skirt child restraint laws for other reasons. Some say their children are uncooperative or they do not have a sufficient number of booster seats or seat belts for every child in their carpool. Some people rationalize that they're only traveling short distances so buckling up isn't a high priority.
Even a low-speed crash can have fatal consequences, Brooks said.
"We don't have a culture of safety. We mostly have a culture of convenience," she said.
Motor vehicle accidents are a leading cause of death for children above the age of 3. They are responsible for more than 140,000 children's emergency-room visits a year.
Drivers need to consider those consequences when they fail to enforce the laws in their own cars when transporting their children or their children's friends.
"Which one of those parents do you want to tell 'Your kid was not buckled up and we got into a crash' " Brooks said.
For more information visit: http://intermountainhealthcare.org/hospitals/primarychildrens/childhealth/parenting/carseats/pages/home.aspx