Most new parents are aware that they need to purchase a car seat for their newborn children. Effective January 1, 2015, a new law in Florida, House Bill 225, which modifies Florida Statute section 316.613, is getting attention as it will require that children through age 5 be placed in car seats or booster seats while riding in vehicles. Under the prior law, children ages 3 and younger were required to ride in the child-restraint devices, while children ages 4 and 5 could use seat belts.

These types of seats range from infant “carrier seats” to convertible seats that can be either forward-facing or rear-facing. However, the common denominator for all of the child safety restraint seats is the five-point harness. A five-point harness is a form of seat belt that consists of five straps, used to buckle children into forward-facing and rear-facing seats. It is designed with the same concept of tightly holding a passenger to the seat but built for young children with the use of five different straps. The reason there have been a number of injured young children and infants in survivable accidents is due to incorrect use of the child safety seats.

Safety Recommendations & Guidance
Even though the law now requires children 3 and under to be in a seat with a five-point harness, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children remain in the safety seat as long as possible, only switching to a booster seat once the child exceeds the height and weight requirement of the safety seat. Specifically, the AAP recommends leaving a child in a booster seat much longer than the current law requires, proposing that a child is safest in a booster seat until reaching the height of 4 feet 9 inches and between the ages of 8 and 12 years, which is typically when the vehicle’s seat belt will fit properly without the assistance of a booster seat. 

Florida requires that a child remain in a booster seat only until the age of 6, not taking into account the height and weight of the child, which are the determining factors, not age, for whether the vehicle’s seat belt will properly restrain a child. However, the AAP recommends the use of a five-point harness until the child is 40 pounds and states that "age should not be a determining factor."

Once a child outgrows the child safety restraint seat or reaches the age of 4 (the minimum age to move to a booster seat in Florida pursuant to the new law) the child should transition to a booster seat. These types of seats typically do not have their own restraint system, but help to ensure proper placement of the vehicle’s seat belt on the child.

The AAA (formerly the American Automobile Association) supported the change, although the organization recommends that booster seats continue to be used until children reach a height of 4 feet 9 inches.

People charged with violating the law (HB 225) face a $60 fine and three points on their driver's license. The law includes exceptions such as when a driver is unpaid and is not a member of a child's immediate family or when a child is being transported because of a medical emergency.

Practice Pointer
Although the revised Florida law has taken a step in the right direction in strengthening its child car seat restraint laws, parents and caregivers should remember that the law is the minimum requirement that must be followed.

All 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the Virgin Islands require child safety seats for infants and children fitting specific criteria. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico require booster seats or other appropriate devices for children who have outgrown their child safety seats but are still too small to use an adult seat belt safely. Prior to January 1, 2015, the only states lacking booster seat laws were Florida and South Dakota. With the revision of Florida Statute section 316.613, Florida now has a requirement for booster seats, which varies from other states but is in line with the overwhelming trend to mandate such requirements.

Nevertheless, the new law does raise a number of questions. For example, how will it affect auto claims litigation with respect to the injuries sustained by minors? Also, will courts hold that noncompliance with the statute is grounds for a finding of negligence per se and/or comparative fault in reducing a jury award?

These and other questions will likely initiate heated debate in Florida courtrooms.