A fateful Saturday car seat check saved a young girl’s life just three days later.
When Christine Lopez woke up Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011, she didn’t expect the day to be so life-changing; literally upside down.
It started as a nearly perfect day in East Los Angeles. The sun was shining, a light breeze, barely a cloud in the sky. Christine and her five-year-old Leilani spent most of the morning looking for a special gift at the mall.
Around one o’clock in the afternoon, Christine decided it was time to head home. With Leilani buckled into her car seat enjoying a snack, she got behind the wheel of her SUV. She queued up Leilani’s favorite playlist, and headed for the nearest intersection.
The mother and daughter laughed and sang along to the music while waiting for the traffic light to turn green. When it finally did, Christine lifted her foot off the brake pedal, started to make a left turn — and then it happened…
In the blink of an eye, Christine’s wonderful day turned into a nightmare. A vehicle ran the red light and broadsided the Lopez family at 40 miles per hour. The smaller gas-electric hybrid impacted the SUV’s rear passenger side door and quarter panel, causing it to spin around several times and ultimately flip over.
When the glass, metal, and plastic stopped flying and the dust settled, they were upside down and facing the wrong way in oncoming traffic on a heavily-traveled street.
“I must have lost consciousness for a moment or two, but once I came around, Leilani was all I could think about,” Christine recalled. “I was upside down, and the car was eerily silent. I was afraid to look back. But when I did, I saw my daughter’s smiling face staring back at me. She was also hanging upside down in her car seat — safe and sound — giggling, ‘I’m upside down, mommy. Wheeee. That was fun,’ just like she had just been on an amusement park ride or something.”
Montebello Police Officer Oscar Chavez was the first emergency responder to reach the crash site and was surprised to find no one seriously hurt.
"Not many people walk-away from such a wreck unscathed. Whenever there’s an overturned vehicle or car on its side, we expect the worst, often finding a severely injured person or persons inside the vehicle,” shared Officer Chavez. “But that wasn’t the case here. We don’t normally see a motorist involved in this serious of a collision walk away without a scratch, especially a child. It was amazing, and says a lot about proper use of restraints.”
Most would say Christine and her daughter were lucky, that fate was on their side that day. But Christine was also smart. Had she not been practicing what she learned from a child passenger safety seat inspection undergone a few days prior, the outcome could’ve been much different.
Just four days before and at the urging of a close friend in the California Highway Patrol, Christine decided to attend a child passenger safety/safety seat inspection event in her neighborhood sponsored by State Farm®.
Ninety-six percent of parents like Christine, roll up to an inspection station confident that the seats protecting their kids are installed and being used correctly.
“I paid a good amount of money for the seat, and it was a name brand with a good reputation.”
Studies have shown 73% of child safety seats and boosters are used incorrectly in one or more ways, and 25% of parents admit to improperly restraining their kids or not restraining them at all on short trips (.
And Christine was no exception. She committed three of the
First, Christine was using the wrong type of seat. According to California Highway Patrol Officer Charmaine Fajardo, a certified Safe Kids technician who has inspected thousands of safety seats, including Leilani’s, the type of safety seat a child uses should be determined by his or her height and weight, not their age.
Leilani was a petite girl, small for her age. Consequently, her frame was too tiny for the booster seat she was in.
“She didn’t meet the recommended limits, and was at risk of slipping out in a severe collision,” says Officer Fajardo. “We recommended switching her to a front-facing or convertible seat with a five-point harness. It would fit [Leilani’s] frame better. She’d be much more secure.”
Christine’s second mistake was the booster seat had expired. “I didn’t even know they could expire,” said a shocked Christine.
Fajardo says most people don’t. “Some seats get passed down from kid to kid, borrowed from family members, or purchased at second hand stores, yard sales or thrift stores,” she explained. “We don’t recommended secondhand seats because you never know what you’re going to get. The effects of wear and tear or other environmental factors over the years could’ve compromised the straps, plastic, or locking mechanisms.”
During the inspection, Fajardo made one other change: she moved Leilani’s seat from the passenger side to the center of the back seat.
While sitting in the middle isn’t a safety requirement, it worked for Christine since Leilani was generally the only rear seat passenger – and as luck would have it, this was the reason Leilani wasn’t sitting by the door that was struck four days later.
After the evaluation was complete, Christine was a bit frustrated but grateful. Officer Fajardo replaced her expired booster seat with a smaller safety seat with a five point harness. Then, taught Christine how to install it and how to properly restrain Leilani in it.
“It was intense and humbling, learning that I was putting my daughter at risk,” admits Christine.
While the child safety seat played a pivotal role for Leilani, it wasn’t the only passenger safety restraint at work in this case. The seat belt and airbags played critical roles, too. It quite possibly saved Christine’s life.
In 2019, nearly 50% of passenger vehicle occupants who died in crashes were not belted. From 1975 through 2017, seat belts have saved more than 374,000 lives. ()
More than 50,000 lives have been saved by frontal airbags, as of 2017. ().
It’s been ten years since Christine and Leilani dangled upside down on Montebello Boulevard.
While the physical bumps and bruises have all healed, the memories still linger.
“Every time we drive by that intersection, Leilani says, ‘Remember what happened here, Mommy?’ I say, ‘How can I forget, baby.’”
Leilani, now almost sixteen, like many teens, has no urge to drive herself. She’s more than content letting her mom stay behind the wheel.
Christine still wonders what could have happened if she had stayed in bed on October 22, rather than go to the child seat inspection.
“What if Leilani’s seat hadn’t been replaced?” wonders Christine. “What if her seat was anchored in the passenger side rear seat at the time of the collision? What if I hadn’t buckled up properly? Would we still be alive?”
What if, indeed.
As a founding member of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, backer of research, data source and advocate, State Farm has played a critical role in many significant auto safety changes and innovation throughout its 100 year history, including, but definitely not limited to:
- Airbags: A leading role in the early 1980s legal battle that resulted in the requirement for airbags today. This decision had even went all the way to the Supreme Court.
- Child safety: A joint effort with The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia® to research child passenger safety in the late 1990s. This led to numerous changes in car seats, usage recommendations and laws in the years since.
- Teen drivers: Research and education related to young drivers and science-based efforts to make Graduated Driver Licensing. This is a program that lets new drivers gain experience gradually.
Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there. It's more than a slogan; it's who we are.
For the past 100 years, we've made it our mission to restore lives, help rebuild neighborhoods, invest in communities, and support education and safety initiatives – like car seat safety - where we live and work. It's what being a good neighbor is all about.