There ought to be a law.
When it comes to protecting kids, there are all kinds of laws, from federal regulations to local ordinances. But the states play a key role in making life safer for our smallest citizens. Some states have been aggressive in creating new legislation covering children–and others haven’t.
To see which states are doing the best job, we analyzed data compiled by the National Safe Kids Campaign, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the National Conference of State Legislators, the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, and the National Program for Playground Safety. And we focused on laws that are actually saving kids’ lives–laws, for example, that mandate the use of car and booster seats in automobiles and ensure that cyclists wear bicycle helmets.
Here are the five states that are doing the most to make child safety a priority:
No. 1 California From requiring pool enclosures to setting standards for playground equipment, California has the most laws on the books to protect kids. And it was out in front early on–California was the first state to make helmets mandatory for cyclists, in-line skaters, skateboarders, and scooter riders, and one of the first to require that seat belts be installed on school buses. This state’s laws are often the toughest: Bike helmets are necessary for anyone under age 18, the oldest cutoff (only 19 states have bike-helmet laws, most of which extend to age 15).
No. 2 New Jersey In 2001, New Jersey was ranked last by the National Safe Kids Campaign in its survey of laws covering kids in cars. Following that black mark, the state passed a tough new law: Today, children seven years old and younger must ride in a child-safety or booster seat. And New Jersey is a winner in other areas, too: It has adopted playground regulations, put seat belts in school buses, and mandates helmets for bicyclists, in-line skaters, and skateboarders under age 14. New Jersey is also one of the few states to require carbon monoxide detectors in hotels and apartment buildings.
No. 3 Tennessee This state has the toughest car seat laws in the country. In Tennessee, any child age eight or younger riding in a vehicle must be in a child-safety or booster seat. And children 11 and under must wear a life preserver when they’re on a boat.
No. 4 New York The Empire State is vigilant about cyclists (requiring helmets for anyone under 14) and boaters (life vests for children 11 and under). Like New Jersey, New York has put seat belts in school buses and carbon monoxide detectors in multiunit dwellings. What keeps New York from ranking higher on our list is that it still permits children over age three to be restrained only with adult seat belts in cars.
No. 5 Florida It has one of the nation’s strictest bicycle-helmet laws, requiring kids to wear them up to age 16. It also mandates putting seat belts in school buses and installing enclosures around swimming pools. However, Florida, too, is held back by a child-restraint law that permits adult seat belts at age four. Also, despite the large number of boat owners in the state, Florida requires life vests only on children under the age of six.
The five runners-up
While they didn’t make our top tier, these states do a good job protecting kids.
* Pennsylvania has a tough law requiring all children ages seven and under to be in a child-safety or booster seat when they ride in a ear. The state backs it up with a stiff $100 penalty.
* Arkansas boasts the country’s strictest life vest law: Children under age 13 must wear a personal flotation device at all times while aboard a boat.
* Connecticut is one of six states to adopt mandatory playground equipment regulations.
* North Carolina also has playground equipment requirements on the books–and mandates bike helmets for kids under age 16.
* Oregon is one of four states to pass swimming pool enclosure laws (others are California, Florida, and Arizona), and it has a bike helmet law for cyclists under age 16.
How you can change the law
If you want to know what your state is doing (or not doing) to protect children, the best place to start is the state’s Web site, where laws and rules are posted online. (New Hampshire, for instance, lists Laws and Rules on its homepage at www.state.nh.us.) The National Safe Kids Campaign (www.safekids.org) also offers a state-by-state search engine on its homepage.
The thought of getting a law passed may seem daunting. But citizens’ efforts can make a difference–as proven by Terrill Struttmann, executive director of Kids in Cars, in Washington, Missouri.
In May 1998, Struttmann’s wife, Michele, and their two-year-old son, Harrison, were struck by a runaway van while sitting on a park bench overlooking the Missouri River. The van was “driven” by two children–ages two and three–who had been left alone with the motor running and who put the vehicle in gear. Little Harrison was killed. Michele survived but underwent 14 surgeries for her injuries. (They now have another son, 20-month-old Peyton.)
When the Struttmanns searched the Missouri state Web site, they found that there was no law on the books about leaving children unattended in a car. They sprung into action, contacting their local state representative–“Every bill needs a sponsor,” says Struttmann–and drumming up statewide support.
Publicity was crucial. “You can talk about a two-year-old being killed, or you can show a picture of Harrison,” Struttmann says. Finally, the couple went to the state capital and personally met with every politician who would see them, then testified before the legislature.
The result: In 2000, two years after Harrison’s death, Missouri passed a law that makes it a misdemeanor if someone is injured as a result of a child being left unattended in a car-and a felony if someone dies.
Says Struttmann: “It’s a start.”