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For children between the ages of 4 and 8 - too old for a child safety seat and too young or small for just a seat belt - a booster seat can be a lifesaver. Studies show that when combined with a shoulder belt, the booster seat can reduce serious injury in a crash by 60 percent. All of Maryland's neighboring states require boosters for children through the age of 7.

It's time Maryland caught up. Under current state law, boosters are only required for children through age 5, regardless of weight, and for those who weigh 40 pounds or less regardless of age. That's just not adequate. The problem is that on small children seat belts tend to ride up over a child's stomach, and the shoulder belt can cut across the neck - with potentially deadly consequences. By simply elevating them a few inches, the booster seat eliminates that threat.

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death and injury for children older than 3. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, close to half of the 444 children ages 4 through 7 who died in 2006 (the most recent year reported) were not properly restrained.

The state Senate recently approved legislation to change the requirement - but may actually have made things worse by amending Maryland law to require booster seats for children up to 50 pounds and deleting the age standard entirely.

The House Environmental Matters Committee, which is scheduled to take up the legislation today, needs to set matters right and bring Maryland in line with the rest of the mid-Atlantic. It's not unreasonable to exempt larger and older children, but safety advocates say such an exemption would need realistic standards - children who are at least 4 feet, 9 inches or more than 65 pounds, perhaps.

If Maryland brings the booster seat law in line with neighboring states (and the national model), the state will also be eligible for $1 million in federal grants for traffic safety education and booster seat loan programs. But the more pressing reason to pass the law is to protect the estimated 154,009 Maryland children ages 6 and 7 who aren't required to use a booster now.

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