Law allows passengers in ski vans to drive to the mountains without seatbelts & keep babies on lap

DENVER - In Colorado, commercial vehicles and common carriers are exempt from laws requiring children to wear seat belts. That means, if you are traveling in a 15-passenger van through ice and snow headed to the mountains, it is perfectly legal to have your baby on your lap.

And one Colorado company is exploiting the loophole to offer "lap sitters" a free ride. A free ride to the mountains for kids under age 2 may appear to be a great deal, but a state senator and the leader of Colorado State Patrol hope it is an offer parents refuse.

Colorado law not only exempts all children from the seat belt law aboard common carriers, but does not require any passenger to be restrained when traveling in vehicles like taxis or shuttle vans -- a practice safety experts agree can be deadly.

In March 2007, a mother and daughter were in an airport shuttle heading down from the mountains. Although the law did not require it, both mother and daughter were buckled up.

"As we continued down the mountain it was snowing and sleeting and, you know, terrible conditions," remembered Elizabeth Clark. "Sam was belted in, had her seatbelt on, and I had my seatbelt on. But not everybody was wearing their seatbelt."

Clark and her then 11-year-old daughter Samantha were visiting from Rye, New York completing a week of skiing when everything changed in an instant.

"All of the sudden I looked up and saw a snow plow -- he wasn't braking … And we just went into that snow plow, 60 miles an hour," said Clark.

The impact crushed the van and Clark's hip. Mother and daughter were rushed to St. Anthony's Hospital in Denver. Sam was treated for internal bleeding and Clark underwent extensive surgery to repair damage to her hip. It took her months to recover.

"I thought we were going to die, me and my daughter," Clark recalled.

"If you had not been belted in, would you be here today?" asked told CALL Investigator John Ferrugia.  "No. I'd be dead," Sam said.

Ferrugia showed Samantha an online advertisement from Home James Transportation, a service that runs between D.I.A. and Winter Park. It provides a special incentive for those who will carry their toddlers on their lap -- "Infant lapsitters under 2 are free!"

Sam and her mother couldn’t believe it.

"That's absurd. Imagine if I had been sitting on your lap," said Sam. Her mom agreed, "You would have died. I mean, to me it's shocking. It's shocking to me."

In an undercover investigation, CALL7 sent a mother and baby to the airport to find out what the Home James drivers told customers. First she asked about the price for herself and her child.

"So $65 or $67 for me and then how much for her?"

The driver answered, "You're a lap sitter."

"What's a lap sitter?" asked our undercover mom.

"Sitting on your lap," he told her.

Then our mom questioned, "Oh you don't have a car seat for her?"

"We don't have car seats. We're not allowed," said the Home James employee. 

In fact, there is no legislated prohibition on providing car seats. Other companies even advertise that they provide car seats if a customer does not bring their own.

We tried to talk with the owner of Home James, Jack Van Horn, who told us on the advice of his counsel he would not speak with us, but said he was doing nothing illegal.  He is correct. In Colorado it is absolutely legal for a child to ride as a "lap-sitter" or unrestrained when traveling in a common carrier.

"The fact that this is legal anywhere, never mind in Colorado, where the conditions aren't good. There's a lot of people going to and from mountains. This is not OK," Sam told Ferrugia.

State Sen. Scott King, a Republican on the Senate Transportation Committee agrees. He couldn't believe the gap in the current law.

King called the loophole in the law an "unintended consequence," but sees it as "something that the legislature should address on behalf of the health and safety of not only children visiting Colorado but children that are Colorado citizens."

Col. Scott Hernandez, head of the Colorado State Patrol, is concerned by the safety risk resulting from the seatbelt exemption.

"I am shocked that they would put that in an advertisement," said Hernandez. "I'm also shocked that people might use them in order to save a few dollars and put their child on their lap at risk for being seriously injured."

After looking at the advertisement, Hernandez explained that regardless of the current law he would encourage companies not to take advantage of the situation.

"I would encourage this company to not do that," said Hernandez. "Make sure we take care of each other and don't encourage more dangerous activities because there's not a specific law that prevents that."

Sen. Steve King says he will to work with the Transportation Legislative Review Committee to review the current law. Any changes to the law will have to wait until next year because this year's legislative session ended last week. In the interim, King believes the seatbelt law exemption could be addressed if the Public Utilities Commission issued a rule prohibiting it.

Hernandez said he would support any measure to close this legal loophole and increase public safety.

A seatbelt advocate as result of her own accident, Clark told Ferrugia, "They're just trying to make money. But you know, do that one time in the wrong van and your child is going to go out the window. It's insane."

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