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The Safety Gap

Jamaal Walker was 6 years old, riding in the backseat with his seat belt and shoulder harness buckled when another driver ran a stop sign and plowed into the Walker family's minivan.

It was not a high-speed collision. But Jamaal was too small to be safely restrained by the adult seat belt. His body slid violently sideways - stretching and snapping his spinal cord.

"He'd just learned how to Rollerblade. He'd just learned how to ride a bike, so it's all taken from him and it hurts," said Jamaal's mother, Pamela Rainford.

Jamaal is the face for an age group at risk. While infants and toddlers are safe in child seats and older kids are protected by seat belts and air bags, those in the middle - ages 5 to 9 - are caught in a safety gap.

In 1999, reports CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr nearly 500 kids in that in-between age group were killed in car crashes. Nearly a third of them died despite wearing seat belts.

Thousands more, like Jamaal, are hurt each year - some suffer catastrophic abdominal and neck injuries caused by the ill-fitting belts themselves.

"If they do sustain an injury there's no way to bring 'em back. Once you've hurt your head, or once you've fractured your spine, there's nothing we can do," said Dr. Marty Eichelberger, National Safe Kids Campaign.

Federal regulators say booster seats offer some protection.

"A belt positioning booster seat that raises them up so that the seatbelt fits across them properly is unquestionably the best way to restrain your kid in a car," said Jeffrey Runge of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

But auto safety advocates argue that's not enough. There's no federal crash standard for booster seats and most are improperly installed - giving kids and parents a false sense of security.

So, safety watchdog groups want new cars to be equipped with built-in booster seats and belts that would keep kids in place.

But few automakers offer that option and federal regulators are not about to mandate it. For now parents are left with booster seats, seat belts, and the awareness - it's up to them to protect their kids.

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