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Hotline offers answers on child seat safety

There are now 32 places in Pinellas County that will check the seats, which often are installed or used improperly.

Inspections have found that most child safety seats in Pinellas County are installed or secured incorrectly, so Safe Communities of Pinellas County has established a new telephone hotline to help parents and motorists keep children safe in the car.

By dialing (727) 582-2255, callers can get a list of local fire and police departments with personnel who are certified to make sure seats are installed safely. They also can get dates and times of seat installation clinics and answers to frequently asked questions, and can leave messages to have a certified technician call them and schedule an appointment.

"I was getting so many calls every week from people asking about installing children's seats correctly, and I thought this would make the information more accessible," said Jackie Ihli, coordinator of Safe Communities, a Clearwater-based injury protection program sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

There are now 32 sites in the county where children's seats can be checked. Technicians also give presentations in schools, for community groups and in hospitals.

"Since we began doing this last year, the numbers of seats installed incorrectly has dropped dramatically," Ihli said.

According to statistics from the NHTSA, 98 percent of 1,500 child safety seats surveyed in Pinellas County last year were used incorrectly. Ihli said checks done Jan. 1 through Dec. 4 of this year showed the number of misused seats had dropped to 67 percent.

The organization's efforts to educate the public grew out of the Buckle Up Florida program, which is part of a 3-year-old national effort to encourage drivers to use seat belts and child safety seats. The NHTSA and the AAA Auto Club developed a 32-hour course in 1997 to certify anyone wanting to learn how to install child safety seats correctly or teach the procedure. There are 45 certified technicians in the county, 13,000 in the country.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the NHTSA recommend car beds for infants under 10 pounds; infant-only seats for babies weighing 5 to 22 pounds; and booster seats for children 30 to 80 pounds.

Lap and shoulder belts can be used by a child who weighs at least 80 pounds and is at least 4-feet-9, and whose knees clear the seat edge without slouching.

At East Lake Fire and Rescue, Lt. Bill Walker said there were 106 deaths in the state last year that could have been prevented by the use of proper restraints.

Walker said he became certified to check safety seats because he "got tired of running to accidents and seeing injuries that could have been prevented."

Driving in Florida with unrestrained children up to age 5 is punishable by a fine of up to $60 and an assessment of 3 points on the offender's driver's license. A minimum of $30 is charged for driving with improperly restrained children age 6 or older.

Anyone seeing a child riding unsecured in a car can call (800) 699-7233 and give the license tag number and a description of the vehicle. The motorists will receive a packet of information advising them of the consequences of not properly using child safety seats and safety belts.

The buckle-up hotline is sponsored by the Florida Child Passenger Safety Program and Florida's Community Traffic Safety Teams and is funded by the Florida Department of Transportation.

_ Staff writer Christine Graef can be reached at (727) 445-4229 or