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

Article excerpt

"...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. …