Joe Schroeder can’t stress enough that parents always need to properly buckle their kids into seat belts or safety seats. And that parents should keep checking to make sure their children stay clicked in.
That message carries extra weight with Schroeder, especially during the holiday travel season, because as a Wichita police lieutenant overseeing traffic investigations, he sees consequences.
“We have a problem with people buckling their kids,” Schroeder said, speaking to reporters after one of the latest tragedies. Just the other day, while off-duty, he noticed a car passing him with two small children standing up in the back seat — their bodies potential projectiles.
State data shows that although most children in accidents are using safety equipment, and that tens of thousands were unharmed in accidents while using seat belts or safety seats, there still is a significant toll among children not buckled in.
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From 2007 to 2011, 18 children — from infants to 12 years old — died in passenger-vehicle accidents while not using seat belts or safety seats, according to data provided by the Kansas Department of Transportation.
During the same five-year period, 768 children suffered injuries in accidents while not strapped in, the data shows. Seat belts and safety seats don’t always prevent deaths or injuries, but the equipment gives children a better chance, officials say.
In a Nov. 8 collision between two vans on East Kellogg, the force ejected three of five children inside, apparently through a back window of their van, Schroeder said. One of the three siblings, a 3-year-old boy, died from massive head injuries. His 10-year-old sister suffered critical head injuries but has been improving, Schroeder said.
There is no evidence that safety restraints in the van failed. Instead it appears that the three children weren’t properly buckled in, Schroeder said. Investigators have not been able to determine where the children, ages 1, 3, 5, 6 and 10, were situated in the van. It’s possible that one of the children was in a car seat thrown from the vehicle because it wasn’t properly tethered or strapped into the vehicle, he said.
Authorities have yet to determine if charges will be filed. The initial investigation found no evidence of driver impairment; investigators are awaiting test results, Schroeder said.
The mother, contacted through a funeral home, declined to comment.
“I can’t think of a worse thing for a parent to go through than to a lose a child in a collision that you’re involved in,” Schroeder said, “and that’s why I just hope that people learn from these things and work to buckle their kids in, whether or not they agree with it or not. Give their children the best chance of survival that they can.
“Because you never know when this can happen,” Schroeder said.
There is some good news. According to Pete Bodyk, traffic safety manager with KDOT, Sedgwick County has one of the higher rates in the state for children being in car safety restraints. KDOT’s 2012 survey in Sedgwick County, based on observations around schools, day care centers, stores and other places where children are traveling, found that for infants through age 4, 100 percent were restrained; ages 5 to 9, 84 percent, 10 to 14, 76 percent; and 15 to 17, 86 percent.
Corresponding statewide rates were: infant to 4, 97 percent; 5 to 9, 79 percent; 10 to 14, 77 percent; and 15 to 17, 78 percent. There has been an increased emphasis on seat belt use by high schoolers, Bodyk said.
The statewide survey has found another phenomenon that Bodyk noted: The surveyor checks to see whether the driver is belted in, and where the driver is buckled in, about 94 percent of time the children in the car are belted in. If driver is not belted in, the children are buckled in only about 30 percent of the time.
Which supports a point Schroeder makes: That if parents don’t wear seat belts, their children won’t either, because they emulate their parents.
In the Nov. 8 accident, he said, it wasn’t clear if the 31-year-old woman was wearing a seat belt as she was driving her five children to meet family members.
According to witnesses, she was turning left in a 55 mph speed zone at Kellogg and Zelta, near Greenwich Road, in front of an oncoming van. The other driver tried to avoid a collision but struck the passenger side toward the rear of her vehicle, causing it to spin.
“Being ejected from a vehicle is almost a guarantee in a vehicle that’s spinning,” Schroeder said. “We see a lot fatalities where people are thrown from the vehicle; if they had stayed in the vehicle they’d be in better shape.”
The side of a vehicle that is turning is vulnerable if hit because the sides are the weakest part, he said.
At the time of the Nov. 8 accident, Wichita police had investigated 21 traffic deaths this year, including two children, compared with 23 deaths at the same point last year.
“It only takes a second to put a seat belt on,” Schroeder said.
“Reality is, kids don’t have an option.”