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Staff Sgt. Valerie Smith loads her son, Gabriel, into his rear car seat.
Staff Sgt. Valerie Smith loads her son, Gabriel, into his rear car seat. (Bryan Mitchell / S&S)
Staff Sgt. Valerie Smith loads her son, Gabriel, into his rear car seat.
Staff Sgt. Valerie Smith loads her son, Gabriel, into his rear car seat. (Bryan Mitchell / S&S)
The European Union safety stamp of approval.
The European Union safety stamp of approval. (Bryan Mitchell / S&S)

RAF MILDENHALL — Janet Niemi is one of the fortunate parents. Sort of.

She had to make an unplanned trip to the British market two weeks ago to pick up a new British-specification child safety seat for 60 pounds ($112) to comply with stricter British requirements.

But Niemi stayed ahead of other parents who may not have a new child seat this week. A law took effect Sept. 18 that strengthens already rigid statutes on children’s safety in vehicles.

“To me, it’s all very silly,” Niemi said as she led her 2-year-old son, Drew, to the car. “We have to buy a new car seat because it doesn’t have the right sticker.”

Niemi, a program technician at the RAF Mildenhall Child Development Center, learned about the new law two weeks ago from her boss, RAF Mildenhall CDC director Anita Grant, who briefed the staff and led a campaign to inform parents.

The British Department of Transport now requires all car safety seats to have a European Union or U.K. stamp of safety. The U.S. stamp of safety approval no longer fits the bill.

There are only minor differences between U.S. and E.U. car seat standards, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. All child restraint manufacturers now build seats that exceed the safety standards for both the U.S. and the E.U.

U.S. military members driving American-spec cars in the U.K. apparently are exempt from the new law. The 16th Air Force legal office issued a directive to base commanders that it was only applicable to British specification cars.

According to the Air Force, 12,000 British-spec cars and 6,000 U.S.-spec cars are registered at RAF Lakenheath. At RAF Mildenhall, 12,394 cars are registered, but the base doesn’t break down registration by auto specification.

The change has led scores of parents to their local baby superstores to buy a new child seat.

“There are going to be a lot of people who have to spend a lot of money,” said Kirsty Dozier as she walked with 11-month-old son, Ashton. “They ought to get reimbursed.”

Dozier already has a British-spec seat in her British car, but Staff Sgt. Jason Hamilton, 26, of Phoenix, doesn’t.

“If it’s good enough for an American car, why is it not good enough for this?” Hamilton asked, while holding 10-month-old son, Nicholas. “They have a waiver for everything else but you can’t exempt the car seat?”

The problem has been compounded by the fact that the 16th Air Force released the information the first week of September. The Department of Transport ran a media campaign to raise awareness of the new law, but many people were surprised to learn of the change.

“Some parents don’t have a clue,” Niemi said.

Alexis Harris, a British woman married to an Air Force noncommissioned officer, was unaware of the change.

“I haven’t heard of it,” she said while walking 2-year-old Keelan Harris to her American Ford minivan.

The new statute also says all children standing less than 4 feet, 5 inches or if they are younger than 12, must use a booster seat in the car.

Grant said the new law will occasionally affect the CDC.

“We don’t do that much transportation with the children,” she said. “But if we do a field trip, that’s going to be something else we have to consider.”

By the numbers ...

60 pounds ($112)Cost of average new car seat at British stores and online

30 pounds ($52)Penalty for failure to have proper child safety seat

500 pounds ($910)Maximum court penalty for failure to have proper seat

4-foot, 5-inchesHeight to stop using booster seat in the United Kingdom

166Number of children killed in car accidents in the U.K. each year

3,739Number of children injured in car accidents in the U.K. each year

2,000Estimated number of casualties to children avoided by new law

Source: British Department of Transport

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