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In my home state, there is a statute regarding child seats.

§ 20-137.1.  Child restraint systems required.

(a) Every driver who is transporting one or more passengers of less than 16 years of age shall have all such passengers properly secured in a child passenger restraint system or seat belt which meets federal standards applicable at the time of its manufacture.

(a1) A child less than eight years of age and less than 80 pounds in weight shall be properly secured in a weight-appropriate child passenger restraint system. In vehicles equipped with an active passenger-side front air bag, if the vehicle has a rear seat, a child less than five years of age and less than 40 pounds in weight shall be properly secured in a rear seat, unless the child restraint system is designed for use with air bags. If no seating position equipped with a lap and shoulder belt to properly secure the weight-appropriate child passenger restraint system is available, a child less than eight years of age and between 40 and 80 pounds may be restrained by a properly fitted lap belt only.

Here's the source.

I am confused on the first sentence in a1, particularly concerning a child who is older than eight but who weighs less than 80 pounds. Does he have to be secured in a child passenger restraint system?

It comes down to the "and." If the "and" means a logical disjunction, then the statute has no bearing on either an 81 pound six-year-old or a 72 pound eleven-year-old. They may sit in the front with a lap and shoulder belt if they wish (and no one else has called "shotgun").

However, if the intent of the law is to keep smaller children from being injured by airbags, then perhaps the lawmakers should have rephrased, removing the age, to something like "A child above 80 pounds may sit in a lap and shoulder belt in the front seat. Children under 80 pounds shall be properly secured in a weight-appropriate child passenger restraint system in a rear seat."

I'm having trouble interpreting the letter of the law. I'm not sure what the spirit of the law is, either. In a normal reading (as opposed to being tried in court by lawyers), does this statute apply to my 72 pound, eleven-year-old? That is, does 20-137.1 require me to put my eleven-year-old in a car seat?

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In a normal reading, it does not apply to your 11-year old, whatever their weight. What the lawyers would make of it in court is another matter.

  • What would the lawyers make of it in court? Money. But I incline to think they would support your reading in the end. – Tim Lymington Jan 9 '14 at 18:13
  • It would be stretching it to come to any other conclusion. But a lawyer representing a party that wanted a different conclusion would probably argue for one. – Colin Fine Jan 9 '14 at 18:14
  • If so, it has gone missing three times in the paragraph. I would be very surprised to encounter the expression and/or in a statute (or any legal document): if that is required, I would expect to find X or Y or both. – Colin Fine Jan 9 '14 at 18:25
  • Sorry, I got my earlier comment wrong. The UK law is that they must use 'the correct child restraint' until either they are 12 years old, or 135cm in height, whichever they reach first. – WS2 Jan 9 '14 at 18:30
  • @TimLymington probably not money... this would most likely be a civil case with some citizen fighting a fine. – rajah9 Jan 9 '14 at 20:13
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Your reading of the logical conjunction is probably right. The statute define a single child by listing two criteria, which are joined by the conjunction and. The rule covers A child [who is both]

  • less than eight years of age

    and

  • less than 80 pounds in weight

Both conditions must be met for the rule to apply. If the child is either over the age or over the weight specified, they are exempt.

If the lawmakers wanted to cover either younger or smaller children, they could have said

A child less than eight years of age and a child less than 80 pounds in weight shall be properly secured in a weight-appropriate child passenger restraint system.

The repetition of a child would make clear that there are two types of children being discussed, the young and the small. They also could have said

A child less than eight years of age or a child less than 80 pounds in weight shall be properly secured in a weight-appropriate child passenger restraint system.

While this latter construction uses a disjunctive form, either of the conditions will trigger the obligation. In effect, both conditions are covered.

  • Your rewrite is clearer, but I think you needed to rewrite it because it was poorly worded. If the restrictive reading (logical conjunction) is right, it's to the back seat for my 11-year old? – rajah9 Jan 9 '14 at 20:29
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The authors of the statutory provision seem to have been concerned about two factors: a child's weight, and a child's maturity. Weight is relevant because a lighter object (or person) can be thrown more easily in the event of a sudden stop. Maturity is relevant because a very young child isn't likely to have good sense about sitting still and wearing a simple seatbelt properly.

The authors of the provision presumably felt that, by the age of eight, a child was likely to be mature enough to have a practicing notion of self-interest in safety, and tall enough not to be sitting like an American Girl doll in the back seat. It must also have felt that a child who weighs 80 pounds or more is likely to be heavy enough to resist being flung about the interior of a car on the least provocation.

Undoubtedly, the authors of the provision also consulted demographic tables that showed that the very few children reached 80 pounds at an extremely young age—say, four years old—before their level of maturity had reached at least a minimum threshold of safety consciousness. In avoiding an "and" construction of the statute's two conditions, the authors also avoided imposing the humiliating requirement that a 79-pound 17-year-old "child" must be packed into "a weight-appropriate child passenger restraint system."

As the other answerers have noted, the logic of the statutory provision's framing of the two conditions is clearly that the provision is to apply until either Condition A (the weight limit) or Condition B (the age limit) is reached. I don't think that the authors of the provision had any secret hope that their wording of the provision would confuse citizens or further stimulate some sort of informal Litigators' Full Employment Act.

  • You're doing a wonderful job of divining the intent of our legislators (the spirit of the law). They may indeed have been thinking about small children being flung around. Or they may have used the age as a substitute for height, as shoulder belts don't protect well when they cross the neck (as opposed to the chest). I'd like to agree with the sense "whichever they reach first," which is a plain and understandable. I'd like people to write clearly and unambiguously. My legislature isn't complying. – rajah9 Jan 9 '14 at 20:23
  • I don't envy anyone who has to write statutes and regulations, though I agree with you that this one would have been easier to understand if the authors had structured the provision as "Action X is required until either Condition A or Condition B is satisfied." But I can tell you from personal experience that law schools put very little effort into teaching students how to improve their writing. Indeed, exposing impressionable students to a multitude of poorly articulated and dubiously reasoned judicial opinions may have the opposite effect. – Sven Yargs Jan 9 '14 at 21:20
  • Yes, I agree with your assessment of law schools and impressionable students. I took a seminar from professor who had both a J.D. and an English degree. A refreshing part is that he took a section of the Uniform Commercial Code and had us read it. The main reaction was to throw up one's hands and say, "I can't read this legal jargon." And yet, he rewrote the legalize with a different structure, while retaining the legal terms. Almost magically, the UCC became readable. – rajah9 Jan 10 '14 at 19:14

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