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Advocate targets restraint systems.

Byline: The Register-Guard

The way Autumn Skeen sees it, the battle to improve passenger safety standards for children in cars won't be won until vehicle manufacturers start designing better restraint systems.

"Imagine if (car manufacturers) asked us all to buy our own seat belts," Skeen said. "That is what they are asking us to do with our children."

Skeen, whose son Anton was killed in a 1996 crash, hasn't always focused on car manufacturers as the crux of the problem. She spent years campaigning for stricter child passenger safety laws and urged states to adopt laws requiring the use of booster seats for small children - the kind of seat that may have saved her son's life. At one point Skeen even partnered with Ford Motor Company on a $30 million campaign to give away booster seats.

But that campaign fizzled and Skeen says she's come to believe the missing piece in the puzzle of how to make cars safer for kids has less to do with telling parents what kind of car seats to buy and more to do with persuading auto manufacturers to design seat belts that fit all types of passengers.

"The average seat belt is built for a man who's 5 foot 10 inches tall and 165 pounds," said Skeen. "But the thing is seat belts aren't so sexy, so (car buyers) would rather spend money on sizzle ... For me it's very painful to realize that cars come with DVD players in the back seat, but not restraint systems for the majority of people."

Not only do seat belts not fit kids properly, but they also don't fit many women and elderly passengers the way they are supposed to, says Skeen, who was herself critically injured in the same accident that killed her son. She says an ill-fitting seat belt contributed to her own injuries.

Skeen now believes the money Ford spent on its abandoned booster seat campaign and the money spent on putting extra bells and whistles in cars would be better spent on the research and development of better restraint systems. She's worked with a biomechanical engineer and determined that making a seat belt system that fits a wider variety of passengers is not just a pipe dream.

But until car manufacturers decide to begin investing money on engineering new kinds of restraint systems, Skeen says, the best she can hope for is stricter child passenger safety laws.

"You can educate the public as much as you want," she says. "But unless you have the engineering component, you're never really going to make the progress that (reflects) the fact that car crashes are the number one killer of children in America."

- Lewis Taylor
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Title Annotation:Family
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jul 23, 2007
Words:448
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