August 20, 2001 12:00 PM

Journalist Autumn Alexander Skeen had always been a believer in auto safety for children. In 1993, in fact, she had written a column for the Yakima (Wash.) Herald-Republic urging the use of car seats. “It’s a matter of life and death,” she wrote. Those words came back to haunt her on June 18, 1996. Driving 143 miles from her sister’s place on Bainbridge Island to have lunch with friends in Yakima, she buckled her 4-year-old son Anton, who had outgrown his car seat, in front next to her. “I get to sit next to Mom,” he chirped, and Skeen was confident she was doing the right thing. “I was going by the law,” she says. “I told myself someone must have tested this.”

But outside Yakima, Skeen’s SUV was buffeted to the shoulder by a gust of wind. When she cut the wheel sharply, the vehicle flipped and rolled over three times. “My next memory was of an EMT telling me not to move,” says Skeen, 44. “I said, ‘Just tell me where Anton is.’ ” As she lay in the hospital with a collapsed lung, six broken ribs and a severely damaged left arm, she learned the terrible truth. Unrestrained by his seat belt, which had been designed for an adult, her 45-lb. son had been thrown from the SUV and killed when it rolled over him.

Vowing that “death would not have the last word,” Skeen channeled her grief into action. Three months after the accident she fired off a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, asking if the agency was looking into the ineffectiveness of adult seat belts for children. In fact, she learned, the agency’s own statistics show that more than 500 children under age 5 die on the road each year—more than half of them unrestrained by a safety device. Skeen also discovered that a product had been on the market that might have saved Anton’s life: a booster seat that bridges the gap between the child car seat—state-mandated for kids under 4 and up to 40 lbs.—and the adult seat belt system. For five years, with support from the National Safe Kids Campaign in Washington, D.C., and child-safety groups in Washington State, she lobbied legislators and campaigned in the press. The result is the nation’s first state booster-seat initiative, signed by Washington Gov. Gary Locke on March 28 in front of Providence Medical Center, where Skeen was treated after her crash and Anton was pronounced dead.

“Autumn is the impetus that has taken child passenger safety to the next level,” says Mary Borges, head of the Washington State chapter of National Safe Kids. “We are now on the verge of federal legislation.” The law, requiring children from age 4 to 6, or from 40 to 60 lbs., to be belted in a booster seat when traveling in a motor vehicle, will take effect next July and has led to similar laws in California and Arkansas.

Not everyone is on board, though. A booster seat costs as little as $20, and the fine for not using one is $86, which some view as unreasonable. “We regard it as an infringement on the freedom for people to make a choice,” Pam Roach, a state senator, told the Associated Press. Counters Skeen: “Our aim is not to create a punitive law. We simply want to give law enforcement the right to warn families to wake up to the safety of their children.”

She herself is one of three children born in Philadelphia to a onetime Foreign Service officer and his wife, a homemaker, teacher and writer. After spending her junior year in England at Oxford, Skeen graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul in 1978, married the next year and divorced in 1986. That year she took a newspaper job in Bend, Ore., and met reporter Tom Skeen, now 49. “I realized soon enough that I was talking to my soulmate,” he says. Marrying after a year, they settled in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where daughter Geneva, now 13 and a soon-to-be freshman at Walla Walla High School, was born. By 1992 the couple had moved to Yakima, Anton’s birthplace.

Today Tom is news editor of the Union-Bulletin in Walla Walla, where the Skeens now live. Autumn travels the country, receiving a modest stipend as an ambassador for Ford Motor Company’s $30 million Boost America! safety campaign, through which the company plans to give away a million booster seats.

In her mind Skeen can still hear Anton zooming down the driveway in his red wagon. And when she can summon the strength, she watches him frolic happily in a video made just days before his death. “I’d sell my soul to have him back,” says Skeen. “What would make me feel most guilty is if I sat at home grieving without trying to save other parents from this.”

Nick Charles

Keith Raether in Walla Walla

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