The mom of a 6-year-old girl seriously injured in a car accident is urging others to always properly secure their children in a booster seat.
“It takes two seconds to put a booster seat in the car and to strap your child in,” Shelly Martin, of Richmond, Va., told TODAY. “It is going to save somebody.”
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Martin’s daughter, Samantha Swartwout, was not in a booster car seat and was sitting with the shoulder strap behind her upper body while riding in her father’s car on September 17. Her dad simply forgot the booster seat and Samantha wiggled out of the seat belt. When his car veered off the road and into a tree, the seat belt dug into Samantha's abdomen.
Her injuries simply appeared as a dark swath of bruise, but the force cause the belt to shred the muscle and fat underneath. It even sliced through on her left side, causing inches of her intestine to spill outside her belly.
“The child is thrown forward with an absolutely enormous force. The seat belt almost acts like a knife,” said Dr. Charles Bagwell, chair of pediatric surgery at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, who treated Samantha.
After three weeks in the hospital, with Martin at her side day and night, Samantha returned home. She needs another surgery to completely repair the damage.
"She has so many limitations," said Martin. "She’ll try to build a fort with her blankets but she can’t because she can’t bend over. She will cry; 'How can other kids do this?' and 'When will I be normal?'"
The seat belt caused so much damage to Samantha because she wasn’t properly restrained.
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Belt behind the back 'a huge no-no'
She normally sits in a booster car seat, which allows the seat belt to rest correctly on her body. The lap belt must sit across the hip bones while the harness goes over the shoulder and across the middle of the chest. Without the booster, the belt rises up and crosses the stomach. This means if there’s a crash the belt fails to restrain a child and instead causes injuries.
“Putting the shoulder belt behind the back is a huge no-no,” said Corri Miller-Hobbs, a nurse and program coordinator with Safe Kids Virginia, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing childhood injuries. “Everybody needs to have a lap and shoulder belt. That same injury could occur to any one of us.”
Using car and booster seats correctly reduces the risk of death by 71 percent, she said. Safe Kids found that 340 children died in car accidents in 2012 and 35 percent were not buckled. For children ages 4 to 8, booster seats reduce the risk of serious injury by 45 percent, compared to only wearing seat belts.
If Samantha had been in a booster seat with a seat belt, the outcome might be different.
"She may not have needed an operation at all," Bagwell said. “Wearing a seat belt correctly has a tremendous impact if you are involved in an accident.”
Bagwell knows how tough it is for parents to understand how to properly secure their children in the car. That's because requirements vary from state and state and from seat to seat, though Safe Kids provides some basic guidelines.
Is it time to move from the booster seat?
Children need to have a five-point harness car seat until they weigh up to 70 pounds, depending on the brand. Then they need to move to a booster seat until they are between 80 to 100 pounds and at least 4' 9".
“You have to ride in a car seat or a booster seat until you truly fit into a seat with a safety belt on properly,” said Miller-Hobbs. “Children need to be sitting upright, with their rear ends in the back of the seat and the shoulder belt needs to go across the shoulder and across the chest. Their knees need to be bent over the seat.”
Kids who can’t bend their knees over the seat often slide down, meaning the seat belt crosses their stomachs.
All parents should check out Safe Kids’ Ultimate Car Seat guide. Parents can get personalized advice about when their children need to be in a car seat, a booster seat, or can go without one.
As Samantha continues building her strength for her next surgery, Martin hopes others take the time to buckle a child correctly.
"This is her entire first grade gone. She is missing out on a lot," she said. "It is basically a trade off. Do you want to take the two seconds to strap your child correctly or do you want to deal with all of this?"
People who want to donate to Samantha can do so here.