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Parents can be fined starting today for not putting their children in car or booster seats until they're at least 8 years old or 4 feet, 9 inches tall.
Children must stay in booster seats longer if their seat belts don't fit them properly, according to the changes to the child passenger safety law, which go into effect today.
Violators face a $112 ticket.
"The whole purpose of this is we want to keep the children safe in the car," Washington State Patrol trooper Kirk Rudeen said. "We supported the law, and the main thing is we want the seat belt to fit the child properly. That's what the booster seats were designed to do."
About half of all children between 6 and 8 years old will be affected by the change, safety advocates say.
The change is causing some wallet worries for nonprofit groups and day care centers that run programs for kids.
Boys & Girls Clubs across Snohomish County are scrambling to find enough car and booster seats to meet the new requirement, said Susan Goettsch, who oversees the Monroe and Sultan clubs.
The clubs transport about 40 kids each morning and afternoon from the centers to schools in three vans. Most of those children need to be in booster seats under the new law.
The two clubs need an estimated $700 to buy 35 seats.
"We're kind of in panic mode right now," Goettsch said. "It's a huge deal for us. None of us had it budgeted."
Kathy Smith of Lake Stevens also hoped to get her son, Jameson, 7, into a booster seat. But the Target store she visited was sold out.
So today, Smith plans to put Jameson in his old high-back car seat.
"Now that he's been out of a seat, I need to find a small seat because it's a lot easier," Smith said. "He doesn't have a problem with it. And obviously if it's going to make it safer, it works."
Another change in the law requires children younger than 13 to ride in the back seat whenever possible. They're allowed to ride in the front if the vehicle has no lap-and-shoulder belts in the back seat.
Until today, state law required children to ride in booster seats until they were 6 years old or weighed 60 pounds.
Safety advocates have said for years that the previous law didn't go far enough to protect children.
"A booster seat just puts them up in a position where seat belt is going to be able to do the job that it's designed to do," said Shawneri Guzman of Snohomish County SAFE KIDS, a nonprofit that works to prevent childhood injuries.
Whether a seat belt fits properly around a child also depends on the type of vehicle the child is riding in, Guzman said.
Children must follow the law until they are 16 years old.
Many parents are confused by the new law, said Michelle Nims of Everett, who owns a children's consignment store.
Nims contacted the Washington State Booster Seat Coalition for guidance on how to answer customers.
"As far as I've been educated, the height has been the most important thing," Nims said.
The Snohomish County Sheriff's Office plans to begin enforcing the revised law immediately. The Washington State Patrol plans to give warnings the first few days to allow people to get used to the change.
Many tickets will likely be written as secondary violations for people who are pulled over for other reasons, such as speeding, Rudeen said.
Officers won't be pulling over every car carrying a child in a seat belt, but they will be looking for children who appear to be sitting low in their seats, he said.
"If they are buckled in from what we can tell, and (the seat belt) looks to be fitting them properly, then we're not going to stop them," Rudeen said.
Today, Austin and Aiden Pyle of Lake Stevens were planning to celebrate their eighth birthdays.
They'll also be going back into booster seats.
"They said it would be embarrassing," their mother, Rachael Pyle, said. "But then once we got them (in the booster seats), they like the fact that they can see better. And I think they also like the fact that there are cup holders ... so they're a little cooler."
Motor vehicle crashes are the single largest killer of children between the ages of 4 and 8, according to the Booster Seat Coalition.
The state's car seat law is called Anton's Law, named after a 4-year-old boy who died in a rollover accident near Yakima in 1996. Even though he was wearing a seat belt, he was ejected from the vehicle he was riding in.
The changes to the law - crafted by lawmakers and Anton's mother - were adopted by the Legislature in 2005.
What the law says
Under the law, children older than 8 or taller than 4 feet, 9 inches may still be required to ride in booster seats if their seat belts don’t fit them properly.
Parents who are confused by the law can answer five questions to determine when their children can move out of a booster seat:
When the child buckles up, is the child’s posterior against the seat back?
Do the child’s knees bend over the seat without the child needing to slouch?
Does the shoulder belt cross the center of the child’s shoulder and chest?
Does the lap part of the seat belt sit low on the hip, touching the child’s lap?
Can the child ride this way in the car every time?
If the answer to any of those questions is “no,” then the seat belt does not fit properly and the child must sit in a car or booster seat. For more information about the law, call Shawneri Guzman of Snohomish County SAFE KIDS at 425-304-6157.