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Georgia traffic safety program has come a long way

By Dan Rahn
University of Georgia

It was, in a way, hardly news at all when the University of Georgia announced this week that its Georgia Traffic Injury Prevention Institute has been awarded a $963,000 grant from the Governor's Office of Highway Safety.

But for about the 20th straight year, the award is a good reminder of how very far this partnership has come.

GTIPI is the state's main resource for public information and professional training on safety belts and child safety seats. A bustling program with 15 enthusiastic employees and a full training calendar, its persistent prodding is a big reason safety seat use in Georgia now exceeds 80 percent.

But the program's beginnings were pretty humble.

"The first grant was for $5,000," said Don Bower, the project's director. Bower is a professor and Cooperative Extension human development specialist with the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

For Emily

He began the project in his early years as a UGA Extension specialist. His interest in child safety seats grew naturally out of both his concern for his new daughter Emily, born in 1978, and his child and family development programming.

"I had been trained in child development and injury prevention," he said. "I recognized that child safety seat technology back then was pretty crude."

Safety belts themselves had been required only since 1968, and the first infant safety seats appeared around 1970. By 1975, Bower said, only about 5 percent of infants traveled in those early seats.

"My wife and I decided something had to be done," he said.

At that point, Bower had never heard of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety, and the people there had never heard of UGA Extension.

Life savers

"But I convinced them that UGA Extension's statewide, community-based educational outreach would be a great way to encourage parents to use child safety seats," he said.

The GOHS administers grant funding from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to support traffic safety initiatives in Georgia. From that first grant in the mid-1980s, the partnership has helped save hundreds of Georgia children's lives.

"In the early years, we thought that when child safety seat use became law, we'd be out of a job," Bower said. "It hasn't worked out that way."

While safety seat use has reached 80 percent, the room for improvement is still great. "Of the 80 percent who use child safety seats," he said, "about 90 percent don't install them properly."

Put what where?

A big part of the problem, Bower said, still rests with complicated and incompatible belt systems. "Sometimes it takes a Ph.D. and a lot of help to get a safety seat properly installed," he said. GTIPI technicians have found everything from duct tape to baling wire securing safety seats.

"In many cases, there's nothing at all to hold the safety seat in place," he said.

A good measure of the complexity of the challenge is that being certified as a child passenger safety technician requires four full, 8-hour days of training. But over the years, GTIPI has helped train technicians in communities throughout Georgia. Help for frustrated parents is always nearby.

Besides teaching those trainings in both English and Spanish, GTIPI offers courses statewide in its P.R.I.D.E. (Parents Reducing Incidents of Driver Error) program, with classes for both parents and their new teen drivers.

Assessing the program's progress over two decades, Bower isn't given to overstatement. But he's clearly proud of its record. "We think we've had a pretty good impact," he said.

To learn more about GTIPI, visit the program's Web site (www.ridesafegeorgia.org).

(Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

(Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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