AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Legislature’s low-key move earlier this year to revamp child passenger safety laws was not a hot-button debate in Augusta, but it could be both a life-saving and pocketbook issue for families with young children.
The bill made two main changes to state law. One will require most children to ride in rear-facing seats until age 2, and those weighing less than 55 pounds use child restraint systems in accordance with manufacturer regulations, which will mostly affect children up to age 5.
The Maine Bureau of Highway Safety has released a guide to the new law, which goes into effect Sept. 19. We asked Jodi Polchies, a child passenger safety technician for the Gorham Fire Department, for a short primer on it to clear up any confusion that parents may have.
Below are Polchies’ answers, with questions and answers lightly edited for clarity and length. The bureau also maintains a list of locations where Mainers can get free car seat inspections and where low-income families can qualify for car seats. Both can be done in Gorham.
Can you run us through the two main changes in the law?
The main change with rear-facing seats is the law was that children up to age 1 and 20 pounds needed to ride rear-facing. Now, they need to ride rear-facing until they’re 2 years old or until they max out the car seat. There will be a limited amount of kids who will get too big before 2.
The other is if your car seat goes up to 55 pounds and your child fits within the height and weight limits, then you’ll be expected to use a harness car seat versus using a belt positioning booster seat. Our booster seat and front seat laws didn’t change.
Do these changes address the main problems that you see while inspecting car seats?
Yes. We have a lot of families not realizing how much safer it is to remain rear-facing. Rear-facing gives their head, neck and spine a lot more protection. Although it’s getting more common and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s recommendation changed in 2011, families have still been kind of slow to understand that it’s safer. A lot of manufacturers have also changed their guidelines so the seat cannot be used forward-facing before age 1, and families were not aware of that. This will help tremendously in bringing awareness to that.
I think a lot of families are just excited to graduate their child to a booster seat because it’s easier to transfer between vehicles, and I think they kind of missed the message that the harness is safer. We want to delay kids at each stage as much as possible. If a child fits the height and weight, they should continue to use a harness and not a booster seat even if they’re 5 or 6 years old.
For most parents, do these changes mean they have to buy new car seats?
No. Most parents will be able to use the car seat they have as long as the child fits the weight and height limits. A lot of harnesses go to 65 pounds, for example, and we want the parents to use it to that 65 pounds as long as the child’s not too tall and then go to the booster seat.
Do you think police will use this law more as an opportunity to punish or educate?
I expect it to be an opportunity to educate. Police officers, unless they’ve had training, they’re not necessarily aware of what needs to happen, so they refer people a technician so they can have a car seat check. The intent of the law was not to be issuing tickets. It really was just to keep these kids safe. Especially where Maine is so rural, we do sometimes have a hard time reaching families, so hopefully this helps families understand there is help available.