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AlexandriaCARES and BABY-1: Protecting the future. (Police Practice).

"...Alexandria CARES trained personnel use the minivan, BABY-1, to provide parents and care givers education and hands-on assistance in the proper use of child restraint systems. Community involvement, public awareness and education, and safety assistance are all necessary components of an effective program." (1)

In 1996, only 40 families in Alexandria, Virginia, received help with the difficult issue of properly using their children's safety seats, despite studies showing that more than 8 out of 10 children were unprotected in vehicle crashes because of misused restraints. (2) Five years later, a unique partnership of police, municipal agencies, private service groups, and citizens helped more than 1,000 families protect their little ones. How did the Alexandria Police Department make this tremendous change?

It employed community policing, wherein officers identify the needs of their specific neighborhoods through meetings with citizens and written surveys. The officers then work with residents, businesses, and other municipal agencies to meet these needs. Often called problem-solving policing, this approach fosters greater cooperation, understanding, and trust between police and citizens. To this end, in 1995, the Alexandria Police Department expanded its successful Community Support Section, supplementing residential officers who live in their assigned neighborhoods with new community officers who serve other areas of the city. One such new assignment included Alexandria's government center and tourist district and became the patrol area of Officer Mark Bergin, then a 9-year veteran of the department. (3)

As part of this newly expanded community policing initiative, Officer Bergin completed basic training in the proper selection, installation, and use of child safety seats in the spring of 1996. Arranged by a women's volunteer service group, the 4-hour training program was developed by Virginia Commonwealth University's Traffic Safety Training Center. During this training, Officer Bergin, four other police officers, and the women's service group volunteers learned that more than 85 percent of all American children ride unsafely and improperly restrained in vehicles. (4) This contributes to more than two-thirds of the 600 to 700 deaths of children under age 4 that occur annually due to motor vehicle accidents. (5) Officer Bergin also discovered that both of his own children were riding unsafely in the family car because of improper child seat use, a failure that hammered home the nationwide child seat problem and propelled his efforts to inform families of these dangers.

Understanding the Problem

The child safety seat problem starts on many levels. First, families become dazzled by a large array of child seats, but few stores have employees qualified to point out which seat styles or designs are appropriate. Next, many buyers find installation manuals difficult to decipher and, sometimes, do not read them at all. Often, proper use seems counterintuitive. For example, a forward-facing child may appear more secure in harness straps placed close to the shoulders. But, the closest harness slots may not be reinforced for this configuration and could crack apart in the 20-g force (6) sustained by a child seat in a 30 mile-per-hour crash. Also, rules for best practice can change over time, and families with older children must understand that what was appropriate for their oldest child now may be unsafe for their youngest. Moreover, a perfect restraint to fit in one car may not be compatible with the seat belts in another, and the same family may own both cars.

Looking for Solutions

Knowing that awareness, education, and assistance represent the three keys to improving proper child restraint use, Officer Bergin immediately began offering child seat assistance to families in his patrol area, mostly during encounters while on foot patrol. These interactions led to invitations to speak at schools and mothers' groups, then doctors' offices and local businesses. With assistance from the women's volunteer service group, Officer Bergin held Alexandria's first child seat checkup--a large public event where families brought their children, vehicles, and child safety seats for expert assessment, advice, and reinstallation--and checked 40 restraints.

However, Alexandria's approximately 10,000 restraint-age children needed more help than the police department could provide with once-a-year checkup events or meetings squeezed in between other patrol responsibilities. The more word spread, the more families realized that they needed help, outstripping one officer's ability to serve. City fire and emergency services personnel tried to help by accepting training from Officer Bergin.(7) Still, they were not reaching enough families and not protecting enough children. At the only child seat checkup Alexandria held in 1997, they checked 71 restraints. At three checkups in 1998, they examined a total of 80 seats. Adding in 166 checkups Officer Bergin performed across Alexandria, only 357 child seats inspections took place between 1996 and 1998. For all of these seat checks, the failure rate was approximately 90 percent,(8) worse than the national indicated average failure rate of 85 percent.(9)

As part of his ongoing evaluation of community needs, Officer Bergin saw that thousands of children were less than safe and recognized his duty as a community support officer to seek better ways to serve them. To meet the increasing demand for information and assistance with proper child seat installation, Officer Bergin knew that he needed additional help. He also recognized that it would require special efforts to break through the language and cultural barriers in Alexandria's highly populated, but economically disadvantaged, Latino community.(10)

Promoting Community Participation

In 1999, Officer Bergin formed a nonprofit organization called AlexandriaCARES (Alexandria Child Automobile Restraint Education Services). This public service project teamed trained employees of the police, fire and rescue, and social service agencies with members of volunteer service organizations, such as the women's service group that brought the police department its first safety seat training 3 years before. In exchange for the free police these volunteers (11) these volunteers committed to help establish a program of regular, monthly child seat checkup events in economically disadvantaged areas of Alexandria. These child seat checks became highly visible activities that improved the safety of families who attended and increased public awareness of safety issues and the need for trained help. The teams have held regularly scheduled events every month since October 1999.

Officer Bergin also began teaching couples the proper child seat installation, selection, and use during childbirth classes at a local hospital. These 45-minute basic presentations have demonstrated a clear benefit. He finds that about one-half of the families who hear his presentations before attending a checkup event have installed their seats correctly. Of course, about twice a month, Officer Bergin ends up in the parking lot of the hospital with families who delayed just a bit too long in seeking assistance before the births of their children. He also gives demonstrations at mothers' groups, P.T.A. meetings, area stores and shopping malls, and other community events, such as health fairs, block parties, and arts festivals. He answers questions and shows installation techniques using a vehicle and seat belt system taken from a wrecked car and mounted on a wheeled platform constructed for indoor educational opportunities.

However, promoting child passenger safety in disadvantaged neighborhoods would prove fruitless if families could not obtain useable, affordable safety equipment. The most economical serviceable child restraints cost around $40, still a difficult purchase for some families. So, AlexandriaCARES applied for and received more that $2,500 in grant money from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles to buy large numbers of quality replacement child seats, which it then provides at low or no cost to economically disadvantaged families who attend seat checkup events. AlexandriaCARES also receives substantial donations that go toward purchasing safety equipment for checkups, including highway signs, reflective safety vests for checkup staff, traffic cones, and Spanish-language posters and brochures. (12)

The program has become so successful that the Virginia Department of Health uses a member of AlexandriaCARES to administer its local program of distributing child seats to families in the city health department system. These seats are purchased with money paid to Virginia as fines for violations of the state child restraint traffic laws.

Delivering BABY-1

Even with all of these efforts, Officer Bergin did not rest. He wanted to find a new way to let the public know that AlexandriaCARES exists. So, to further increase awareness of the AlexandriaCARES projects and the availability of child restraint services, Officer Bergin arranged for a local automobile dealer to donate a new minivan to the police department. (13) Delivered in January 2000 and known as BABY-1, the minivan has the official markings and equipment of a police patrol cruiser, yet carries all of the spare giveaway seats and materials needed to conduct checkup events or demonstrations. Dual sliding doors make it easy for families to watch demonstrations of proper child seat installation and seat belt use. It typically carries eight or nine different types of child restraints at any given time.

BABY-1's high visibility, unique appearance, and family-car personality have established it as a recognized advertisement for the ready availability of child seat assistance. For example, half of the attendees at a recent lecture at a local bookstore said that they knew to come to that location because they saw BABY-i parked outside. Moreover, the dealer who donated BABY-1 hosts regular monthly checkup events at the dealership, has Officer Bergin train the sales and service employees in proper child restraint use, and stocks an array of child restraints in the parts department.

Creating Safety Centers

While these monthly checkup events and BABY-1 increased awareness of child restraint issues, Officer Bergin sought to expand his availability to the community. He procured free office space in a large shopping mall and called it a Child Passenger Safety Center. The center, staffed on a regular, announced weekly schedule by Officer Bergin and AlexandriaCARES members, offers families the convenience of a local, accessible site for drop-in questions and demonstrations or checkups, making child restraint assistance available on demand. From the time it opened in January 2000, the Child Passenger Safety Center's attendance has grown from 5 families a day to a recent monthly average of 20 families a day. In the summer of 2000, a second Child Passenger Safety Center opened in Officer Bergin's primary duty area in space donated by the Alexandria Convention and Tourism Association (ACVA). Attendance at this center also has grown steadily, and Officer Bergin's presence in an office on his regular patrol route has made him available to assist citizens and fellow officers in a number of more traditional police incidents, such as bank robberies, store larcenies, and disorderly persons. AlexandriaCARES and the ACVA are developing a program to loan child restraints to tourists, as well as disadvantaged city families, on a short-term basis.

The newest Child Passenger Safety Center, in a primarily Spanish-speaking community, opened in a donated shopping center storefront. Officer Bergin began assisting families in April 2001, after learning enough basic Spanish to ask vital questions of families, such as the weight and age of children, to determine proper child seat selection and configuration. Having BABY-1 makes it easier to operate the centers because it acts as a mobile storage area for needed demonstration and loaner seats.

These centers, sometimes referred to as "fitting stations" and established in accordance with recommendations proposed by the National Transportation Safety Board, offer families the convenience of reliable, available assistance that fit their own schedules. In addition to the help offered to 25 to 75 families at the monthly seat checkup events, Officer Bergin and AlexandriaCARES members perform dozens of checkups a week at the safety centers. They also make house calls for families with health issues, multiple vehicles, or very young children.

Seeing Results

Such concerted efforts have led to remarkable results. In its first year of operation at monthly child seat checkup events and the Child Passenger Safety Centers, AlexandriaCARES members checked 1,053 child restraints, with an observed misuse rate of 94 percent. The organization distributed more than 50 new restraints to families, ensuring that no children left a checkup event unprotected. Most important, during 2000, AlexandriaCARES recorded three "saves" with five children surviving three dangerous automobile crashes without serious injuries, one just 20 minutes after leaving the checkup site. About 1 in 5 families come from outside Alexandria, from jurisdictions where child seat assistance is not offered or cannot be easily located. AlexandriaCARES never refuses to help any family.

Besides such encouraging statistics, the project has resulted in many other members of the community coming together to address the problem of child safety seats. Officer Bergin has assisted several city agencies with child transport issues and has loaned or donated child seats to many others, including hospitals and social service agencies. Recently, a local hospital sought Officer Bergin's advice on transporting children in its emergency evacuation helicopter.

In addition to its members, the financial and logistical support from the car dealer who donated BABY-1 and the local shopping centers that house the safety centers and the donations of time and money from private citizens, AlexandriaCARES has garnered support from numerous civic groups, including a service club from the area's local high school. Some of these organizations have developed specific areas of interest, such as a loaner program of specialty seats for premature infants and a program to promote restraint education and use among residents of local shelters.

Within the Community Support Section, Officer Bergin has become the Alexandria Police Department's Child Seat Safety Coordinator. (14) He helped develop the department's child transport policies, making Alexandria what is believed to be the first police department in the country to ban transport of restraint-aged children in police cruisers because of dangers posed by rigid prisoner security screens in the back seat. This limitation on cruiser transport is now part of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's 32-hour program curriculum.


The issue of properly protecting America's youngest citizens may not appear as important as apprehending dangerous criminals. However, these young citizens cannot speak for themselves and must rely on the compassion and consideration of adults. Although parents try to secure their children in vehicles and assume that they have done so in the correct manner, all too often this tragically proves incorrect.

The Alexandria, Virginia, Police Department has devised a program that can enable officers to help parents correctly install child safety seats and ensure that they understand the importance of properly restraining their children in vehicles. All law enforcement agencies should join in this effort to safeguard America's smallest and most vulnerable citizens because they represent the future and deserve every chance to grow up and enjoy it.


(1.) In a letter, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Jim Hall congratulated the Alexandria Police Department on its child safety seat program.

(2.) Lawrence E. Decina and Kathleen Y. Knoebel, "Patterns of Misuse of child Safety Seats," National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Final Report, DOT HS 808, January 1996.

(3.) For detailed information, contact Officer Bergin, Project Director, AlexandriaCARES, at 703-924-9294 or at or access the web site at

(4.) Supra note 2.

(5.) Reports from the Fatal Analysis Report System of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation.

(6.) Acceleration of gravity: a unit of force equal to the force exerted by gravity on a body at rest and used to indicate the force to which a body is subjected when accelerated, Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, l0th ed., s.v. "g."

(7.) In 1998, Officer Bergin completed the 32-hour training program from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to become a Child Passenger Safety Technician and received certification as an instructor.

(8.) Analysis of child restraint checkup reports, Alexandria Police Department, 1996-1998.

(9.) National SAFE KIDS Campaign, Child Passengers at Risk in America: A National Study of Car Seat Misuse (Washington, DC, February 1999).

(10.) For additional information, see Kim Kapp, "Welcoming Immigrants," Community Links, June 2001, 9-10.

(11.) Officer Bergin trained members of these organizations, including Spanish-speaking volunteers, in a child passenger safety curriculum developed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police called Operation Kids. The department chose the Operation Kids curriculum because, at 8 hours in length, it represented both the minimum length of training needed to meet Virginia Department of Health standards for child safety advocates and the maximum length of training that a typical volunteer with other life, family, and job obligations could afford to take.

(12.) Applications currently are being completed to register AlexandriaCARES as a nonprofit charity and to make AlexandriaCARES a part of the United Way Campaign.

(13.) The donation was arranged as a lease, approved by the chief of police and the city manager, and governed by a memorandum of understanding adopted by the city council. The dealer pays the lease; and BABY-1 reverts to the dealership at the end of 3 years. However, the dealer has expressed his support of the program and expects to renew the lease and provide a new vehicle at that time.

(14.) Officer Bergin received the 2001 Governor's Transportation Safety Award in the category of Occupant Protection. This award, presented at the state's Annual Conference on Transportation Safety (ACTS), recognizes Officer Bergin for creating an innovative safety program using community participation to extend police resources and improve service to the Alexandria and Northern Virginia community.

RELATED ARTICLE: Child Passenger Safety Tips

* Place infants to age 1 and weighing up to 20 pounds facing the rear and never in front of an air bag.

* Secure toddlers weighing up to 40 pounds in a child safety seat with a harness that is tight, with no more than one adult finger-width between the strap and the child's chest, and with the harness retainer clips linking the straps across the chest at armpit level.

* After children outgrow safety seats and until they weigh 80 pounds and stand 4' 9", they should use booster seats--ones that help big belts fit little bodies--with belts low on hips, across the center of the chest and shoulder, and with knees bent comfortably straight down.

* Lock child safety seats tightly, with no more than 1 inch of play either way.

* Read and follow vehicle and restraint directions.

* Set a good example--wear your seat belt.

Sergeant Gittins serves in the Internal Affairs Section of the Alexandria, Virginia, Police Department.
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Title Annotation:minivan demonstrates proper use of child restraint systems
Author:Gittins, Dianne
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2002
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