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Child Safety Goes Shopping

A new drive to 'buckle up' toddlers arrives at America's supermarkets

Get ready to strap in those babies and tie down those toddlers. Supermarket safety is coming to a grocery store near you.

With a growing number of children being treated for injuries sustained at supermarkets, a coalition of food-industry groups is banding together to equip the nation's 20 million grocery carts with safety straps and to persuade parents to use them.

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An average of 21,600 kids age 5 and under were treated each year from 1985 to 1996 for injuries from falling from, tipping, or running into shopping carts. Moreover, the number of injuries has increased from 16,900 in 1985 to 22,200 in 1996.

But rather than slap the industry with regulations, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has formed a coalition to combat the problem. The group includes the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), which represents supermarkets, the National SAFE KIDS Campaign, and a safety-belt manufacturer to educate supermarket employees and parents and encourage them to use safety straps in shopping carts.

"This is one of those safety issues that you try to handle through public information," says Ken Giles, a spokesman for the CPSC. "If the public understands this is a serious head-injury problem, we think parents will strap their children in."

The program was kicked off at FMI's May convention. In June, FMI sent off posters and brochures with its "Buckle Up, Protect Your Child" slogan for parents, as well as educational material for employees, to its 1,300 member companies.

The Safe Strap Co. provided 1 million safety straps at cost. And SAFE KIDS is visiting markets to help spread the word.

That's good news for Celine San Nicolas in Boston. This mother of a very active son, Thoma, is expecting another child next month.

Thoma, a dark-haired little boy sporting a pinstriped, short jumpsuit and Nikes, is like most two-year-olds. He doesn't walk. He runs. And he never sits still.

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Thoma has never fallen from a shopping cart, but Mrs. San Nicolas says he's had many "close calls." In the time it takes her to bend over to reach canned tomatoes from the bottom shelf, Thoma can tumble from the cart.

Currently, San Nicolas says, only one of the three markets where she shops has safety straps available in most carts. Another has a few, but most of them are broken, she adds.

Industry officials estimate that about half of the nation's carts are currently equipped with safety straps.

Only two states - Texas and New York - require shopping cart manufacturers to install safety belts on all carts sold in their states.

It's too early to tell how many supermarkets are participating in the new promotional program, says Edie Clark, spokeswoman for FMI. But, she says, the feedback is good.

A RECENT visit to four supermarkets - two in Boston and two in a nearby suburb - found that three markets had safety straps available in most carts.

"Most parents come looking for carriages equipped with safety straps," says Dick Lennon, manager at Omni Foods in Newton, Mass.

Looking down a long aisle with highly polished floor tiles, Mr. Lennon adds, "that's concrete under there. It doesn't move. We ask our employees to be vigilant - to watch for kids standing up in carts and things like that."

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