September 14, 1981 12:00 PM

In the grim, cautionary tally of “road deaths” that comes with every Labor Day weekend, one fact is usually omitted: how many of the casualties were infants. James and Terri Davis of Murfreesboro, Tenn. do not have to be reminded. Last September their 5-month-old son, Jason, died in a car accident—a fate that claims some 1,000 children under 4 every year. Jason was crushed because he had been sitting on his mother’s lap when their car collided with another auto. His death, the Davises learned later, was tragically unnecessary. Two months ago Terri Davis gave birth to another son, Phillip, and one of her husband’s first calls from the hospital was to Dr. Robert Sanders to borrow an infant car seat for Phillip’s first ride home.

Sanders, 53, is a Tennessee pediatrician who has spearheaded a national drive to make car seats mandatory for all children under 4. The No. 1 killer of kids over 1 month of age today is auto accidents, and Sanders says studies show more than 90 percent of those 1,000 annual deaths and 70 percent of the 70,000 injuries to children in car crashes every year are preventable with restraints.

“We are so accustomed to immunization against childhood diseases like polio, measles and diphtheria,” he says, “it behooves us to be interested in what is killing children nowadays—automobile crashes.”

Thanks to Sanders’ efforts, Tennessee in 1977 became the first state to pass a law requiring car seats for children under 4. This year, partly as a result of Terri Davis’ testimony before the Tennessee legislature, the law was tightened to specify that holding a child was not a legal substitute for a seat.

A Murfreesboro pediatrician and the county’s public health officer, Sanders began lobbying in Nashville after signing one too many death certificates for young accident victims. Stalking legislators, his papers clipped together with a clothespin, Sanders told everyone he met that an unbelted child weighing 10 pounds becomes a 300-pound projectile when a car going 30 mph stops suddenly. The law was voted down in 1976, but the next year his wife, Pat, pitched in on the lobbying campaign—and won. The state subsequently purchased 1,200 infant car seats, which state troopers now lend to drivers who don’t have them. (Buying a car seat voids the ticket.) There are also rental and donor programs for families who can’t afford seats. (The seats cost from $25 to $70.) The wisdom of the program is plain: Since January 1978, only one of the 54 children under 4 killed in Tennessee auto accidents was in a car seat—and three times as many drivers now use the devices.

When he’s not lobbying, Sanders directs the Rutherford County Health Dept. and oversees its clinic, which serves an area of 80,000 people. Born in Tullahoma, Tenn., Sanders graduated from Vanderbilt University medical school in Nashville in 1955. He and Pat married in 1962, and they and their two children now live on a 370-acre farm that’s been in his mother’s family for 110 years. “Rural life is such a tranquilizing element,” he says.

The car-seat campaign, on the other hand, has been anything but sedative. Sanders has brought his cause to the national level with the support of the American Academy of Pediatrics. So far eight other states have passed stringent infant-car-seat laws: Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island and West Virginia.

While they’re at it, Sanders hopes legislators across the country will also pass mandatory seat-belt laws for adults. Belt use has dropped from 25 percent in 1974 to 11 percent today, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration this fall will begin a multimillion-dollar campaign to encourage people to buckle up. Bob and Pat Sanders have very personal feelings about that advice. Last February they were belted in when their car was hit by a pickup truck and spun off a rain-slicked road into a ditch. “I thought, ‘This is going to be my last thing,’ ” Pat recalls, but as the trees whizzed by, she shouted: “My seat belt is holding! My seat belt is holding!” Neither she nor her husband was hurt.

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