One June morning six years ago, my 4-year-old son, Anton, and I piled our luggage into an SUV and headed off from Seattle for a short vacation at our family cabin in central Oregon.
I carefully buckled Anton into the passenger seat next to me. At nearly 50 pounds, he was too big for a carseat, and the front seats were the only ones with shoulder belts. At the time, there wasn't much awareness of the danger of having kids ride up front, and I truly believed Anton was in the safest seat of the car.
Three hours into our trip, we were driving along Interstate 82 through central Washington, a bleak stretch of road marked by sagebrush and gusting winds. Afternoon sun shone through Anton's window, and his head drooped to the side as he fell asleep. The radio was tuned to the news, but static frizzled the broadcast. Passing a semitrailer on the left, I glanced down to adjust the radio.
That's the last thing I remember. I later learned that the wind had buffeted us onto the shoulder of the road, where our front wheels tripped in the soft sand and ash. Our SUV rolled over three times.
When I regained consciousness, paramedics and state troopers were hovering over me. My face had been cut, my ribs and shoulder blade broken, and the skin and muscle on my left forearm scraped to the bone. But my seat belt had held me in, saving my life.
Next to me, however, the rescue workers found no one. Though his seat belt was still clicked shut, Anton had been thrown out of the popped-open door, and the SUV had rolled over him, killing him instantly. Just that fast, my little boy -- a bright, beautiful child with a warm spirit and a kind heart -- was gone.
As the days passed, feelings of anger and incredulity began to permeate my sadness: How can a seat belt imply protection -- yet have delivered none to Anton? If these safety restraints work for adults, why don't they work for children? And if seat belts don't protect all passengers, shouldn't there be some way to warn people of that danger?
That fall, unable to focus on much of anything else, I began looking for answers. What I discovered stunned me: Anton's death was not an anomaly. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly 500 children between the ages of 4 and 8 are killed in car crashes every year -- despite the fact that many of them are buckled in! Even more shocking, I learned that safety experts and auto engineers have known since the early 1970s that lap-shoulder belts -- designed for a 170-pound male -- cannot properly protect anyone less than five feet tall.
Would Anton have been safer in the backseat? In the weeks after his death, I asked myself that again and again. Some safety experts told me that the lap belts in the back might have been equally deadly, but no one really knows for sure. What I did learn, however, was that if my son had been in a booster seat, his life would most likely have been spared.
With my faith in government and corporate responsibility totally shaken, I began firing off letters to the media and to political and corporate leaders, demanding that something be done. I contacted child advocates and pleaded with them to take up the cause. It took several years to draw attention to the issue, but public officials finally began to listen. In March of 2000, Anton's Law was officially adopted by the state of Washington -- making it the nation's first legislation requiring kids ages 4 to 6 to be buckled into booster seats. Since then, eight more states have passed similar laws, and many other states are considering following suit.
These victories represent a beginning -- but there's still a long road ahead. As I see it, the ultimate solution is to require auto manufacturers to design cars with built-in safety systems that can be modified to protect passengers of all ages. In my mind, to consider kids' comfort and safety in cars as somehow less important than adults' is discrimination -- and negligence.
It is too late for our Anton, too late for my family. We won't get a second chance. I will never hear my son's joyful laugh again, feel his hands on my cheeks, or see his eager-to-please eyes peeping out from beneath his thick shock of hair.
But in memory of Anton, I'm urging other parents to get on the booster-seat bandwagon. First and foremost: Don't let your child ride in a car -- even for a second -- unless he is properly restrained. If he's under 4 years old or 40 pounds, he needs a carseat. Use a booster seat for older children. Though state laws require them only until age 6 or 7, an unfortunate concession to opponents of the legislation, safety experts agree that adult seat belts don't adequately protect kids who are under 8 years or weigh less than 80 pounds. A child should also be in a booster if he can't sit with his knees comfortably over the front edge of the seat or if the lap or shoulder belt seems awkward and uncomfortable.
Second, be vocal in your community about the importance of proper safety restraints for children. Talk to your friends and family about it. If you're involved in community groups like the PTA, urge them to help increase public awareness of the importance of booster seats.
Finally, join me in lobbying to make booster seats mandatory in all states. Write a letter to your representatives in the state legislature, and urge them to protect our children. Parents must band together on this issue. Together, we can make America's roads safer for its youngest citizens.
Act Now! To learn what's going on in your state regarding the use of booster seats, click below. We can help you contact your local representatives to make your voice heard on this crucial issue.