I-Team: HPD often ignores car seat safety laws

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by Jeremy Rogalski / KHOU 11 News I-Team

khou.com

Posted on February 6, 2014 at 11:45 PM

Updated Friday, Feb 7 at 1:04 PM

HOUSTON -- The crash test simulations leave little to the imagination. A child mannequin is shot like a missile through the front windshield of a minivan.

It’s what can happen when a child isn’t in a car seat. And it makes real-life scenes of unsecured child passengers all the more troubling.

The I-Team took video of several parents leaving public parking lots, and leaving their kids unrestrained and in harm’s way.

Several didn’t seem to want to fess up to what they did.

I-Team: “Can I ask you why your child was not in a car seat?”

Mother: “Was she not?”

She wasn’t. Her daughter climbed into the backseat and mom drove off, down the interstate, with the little girl hopping up and down in back.

I-Team: “Ma’am, you didn't put her in the car seat, why wouldn't you do that?”

Mother:  “Well I'll make sure I put her in there if you're saying I didn't.”

At another parking lot, not one child or two, but a total of four kids were left unrestrained in the back of a moving minivan.

Nearly ten minutes later, we caught up with the mother.

I-Team: "I’m wondering why you have all these kids, and you don't put them in car seats?”

Mother: “Are you going to put this on television?”

I-Team: “Can you answer the question? Don't you think that's dangerous?”

Mother: “Maybe because I live, like two blocks away.”

We had followed her for more than two miles.

The I-Team chose not to identify the mothers because this story is much bigger than a few parents breaking the rules.

It's about Houston police ignoring them. A review of court records and accident reports reveals that law enforcement often fails to enforce child safety laws.

 We analyzed a year's worth of accidents—160 crashes--in which Houston Police found children unrestrained. But in more than half of those, 54 percent, HPD chose to ignore the law and not write a car seat citation.

"Sure they should write a ticket, to remind them, ‘Hey, buckle this kid up, it could have been worse’,” said parent Kenneth Atkins.

Atkins brought his daughters and grandchildren to a car seat check-up event organized by the non-profit group Safe Kids Greater Houston.

“A child is like a little object-it'll fly," said mother Marissa Tristan, who put the issue in perspective.

“I mean they think it's okay for our children to fly out the window," Tristan said.

 But that's not all HPD is not doing. When officers do write car seat tickets, many fail to show up to court to testify. It happened 30 percent of the time last year, with 1096 cases dismissed or thrown out because the officer was a no-show.

"It's sending a bad message,” said mother Ashley Atkins.

But nobody at HPD wanted to talk about that message on camera. Our request for an interview there was denied.

In addition, surprisingly, no one at the Safe Kids Greater Houston car seat check up did either. It was organized by Texas Children’s Hospital.

Texas Children’s Hospital employee: “We can't talk to you and we don't want to be filmed.”

I-Team: “So you're part of Safe Kids but you don't want to be filmed doing things keeping kids safe?”

TCH employee: “I don't want to be filmed because I work for Texas Children's and they don't want us to have anything to do with the story.”

Texas Children's Hospital is the lead agency in the group Safe Kids Greater Houston. It tells us its experts wouldn't be a good fit for the law enforcement angle of our story. What the hospital didn’t mention is that it is partners with Houston Police.

Finally, HPD sent us the following statement:

“The Houston Police Department understands and respects the importance of laws designed to protect children and other vulnerable persons.  The decision whether to issue a citation to a driver in a crash involving an unrestrained child rests within the sound discretion and judgment of the investigating officer and the use of such professional discretion and judgment to not issue a citation does not diminish the value the department places on the children involved in such crashes.

When a citation is issued for any offense, there are a number of reasons why an officer may not appear at a scheduled court hearing.  Officers are expected to know Department policies and supervisors are to ensure that officers are accountable for court attendance as part of the usual and customary performance of their duties. If officers do not have a valid reason for not appearing in court they are subject to disciplinary action.”     
 

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