"I didn't use a booster seat."
When Giana Mandel turned 4, her mother, Francine Del Ricci, made a smart safety decision by buying her a booster seat. "Giana used it for almost a year, but when she was close to 5, I thought she was big enough to ride without it," says Del Ricci, 42, of Fort Washington, Pennsylvania. So on a summer day in 1998, Giana's mom let her go on an outing with a teacher from school on one condition: that she ride in her seat belt in the center of the backseat. Del Ricci remembered having read that a child in an accident is safest in that spot because it's the farthest point from any impact.
Several hours later, Giana and her teacher were hit head-on by a drunk driver. Riding in the center of the backseat -- a position equipped with only a lap belt -- Giana was in serious trouble. She was far too small for the vehicle's belt system and had no upper-body restraint.
The lap belt cut into Giana's abdomen, causing severe trauma to her gastrointestinal tract. She was in and out of the hospital for months and had to be fed intravenously. Emergency-room physicians see this injury so often that they've even given it a name: seat-belt syndrome.
Only 5 percent of kids who should be in belt-positioning booster seats are actually using one, says Flaura Winston, M.D., Ph.D., principal investigator of Partners for Child Passenger Safety. But standard seat belts are not designed for kids, and lap belts alone have the potential to be even more harmful. A child who's restrained only by a lap belt (or who has pushed the shoulder belt behind his back because it's uncomfortable) often gets injured when his head slams into his own knees or the back of the front seat.
Smart Safety Steps:
- For seat belts to operate properly, a child over 40 pounds must be in a booster seat, which elevates him enough so that the belt crosses his shoulder and hips in the right place. Kids generally need that seat until they weigh 80 pounds.
- Teenagers and adults should also always use a lap and shoulder belt.