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Bemidji car seat give-away aims to help needy

Officers Michelle Leffelman, left, and Tabitha Carrigan of the Bemidji Police Department have organized a child seat give-away June 23 for low-income families in the area. Three types of seats are available by appointment. Monte draper | Bemidji pioneer

BEMIDJI - The last time Tabitha Carrigan wrote out a ticket for a driver failing to have children restrained in their car seats, it turned into a pricey penalty for the parent.

Workers at a local fast food restaurant called police to report the parent, who had ordered food through the drive-up window, was traveling with five children, none of whom were properly restrained.

Carrigan, an officer with the Bemidji Police Department, said the violation proved to be costly - a citation for failing to properly use car seat restraints costs $135 - since there were five car seats in the sport utility vehicle.

State law mandates children traveling in vehicles be properly restrained until he or she is 8 years old or stands 4 feet, 9 inches tall.

The most recent citation issued by Officer Michelle Leffelman also proved to be an expensive reminder for the driver who failed to use a car seat for a young occupant. The car seat was stored in the car's trunk.

"There are teachable moments," she said. "I see a lot of seats not used properly.

During traffic stops, Leffelman said she'll require the driver to install the seats or properly restrain a child before allowing the person to leave.

"I don't know of anyone who will let them off with a warning," Carrigan said of officers' zero tolerance for child restraint violations.

"Kids can't protect themselves. It's the parents' job to protect the child."

While car seat enforcement is part of their jobs, Carrigan and Leffelman both of whom are certified child restraint technicians, said their primary goal is to educate drivers and distribute seats to low-income families who struggle to afford the safety devices, which can cost $20 to $50 at a big box retailer.

In each of the past two years, the Bemidji Police Department received grant money to purchase car seats for low-income families.

Leffelman wrote the grant applications.

In 2011, the department received funding for 50 car seat restraints. This year, funding was available for 52 more.

The officers are coordinating a give-away event June 23 since there are more than 65 devices - a combination of convertible seats, high-back boosters and no-back boosters - available.

"There is such a high need in this area," said Leffelman, adding poverty guidelines for the car seats generally follow the federal income threshold for the Woman, Infants and Children program.

The officers said they hope to draw attention to the event and give away all of the seats. Parents must call the department to sign up for an appointment, between noon and 4 p.m. June 23, to receive a seat, which are available on a first-come, first-serve basis to those who qualify.

"We thought it would be easier to have mass parents watch the video," Carrigan said. "We want to get them out to the public."

As part of the appointment, parents must watch a 20-minute video about the importance of car seat restraints, properly placing them in a vehicle and safety testing.

Improper car seat use can lead to severe injuries, including spinal damage and paralysis.

"It's really valuable information for parents," Carrigan said. "Car seats act like a shell and are a protectant."

Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics changed its policy on the use of rear-facing car seats. The AAP now advises parents place children in rear-facing seats until age 2 or until he or she reaches the maximum height and weight for the seat.

In addition, AAP said most children need to ride in a belt-positioning booster seat until they have reached 4 feet, 9 inches tall and are between 8 and 12 years old, according to the organization's website.

The change caused some controversy and confusion for parents since AAP had previously advised infants and toddlers could be moved to forward-facing car seats at age 1 or when they reached 20 pounds.

The AAP website said vehicle crashes are the leading cause of deaths among children 4 and older. In addition, for every death, there are 18 children hospitalized for crash injuries.

Primary seat belt law: Drivers and passengers in all seating positions, including the back seat, must be buckled up or in the correct child restraint. Officers can stop motorists solely for seat belt violations, including unbelted passengers. The primary seat belt law became effective July 1, 2009.

Booster seat law: A child cannot use a seat belt alone until they are age 8 or reach 4 feet, 9 inches tall - whichever comes first. It is recommended to keep a child in a booster based on height, not age.

The Bemidji Police Department will give away more than 65 car seats to low-income families in the area. Seats will be provided to families June 23 by appointment.

To learn more about the program's income guidelines and to make an appointment to receive a seat, contact either Officer Michelle Leffelman at 333-8367 or Officer Tabitha Carrigan at 333-8309

Steve Wagner

Grand Forks Herald Editor Steve Wagner can be reached at 701.780.1104 and He joined the Herald in April 2013, and previously worked as editor at the Bemidji (Minn.) Pioneer and in several roles -- including news director, investigative reporter and crime reporter - at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. His reporting experience includes coverage of Dru Sjodin's disappearance and the federal death penalty case for her murderer, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., along with several investigative projects. In his spare time, Wagner is an avid runner and occasionally writes about his experiences on his blog, Addicted to Running.

(701) 780-1104