Saving Leilani

Car crashes are a leading cause of death among young children. Sadly, basic child safety practices could have saved more than 50% of them. But Christina Lopez’s daughter Leilani was spared thanks to a timely inspection and decades of safety improvements.

When Christine Lopez and her daughter, Leilani, woke up on Wednesday, October 26, 2011, they had no idea their lives would be in danger
in just a few short hours.

It was a nearly perfect day in East Los Angeles. The sun was shining, a light breeze blowing, and there was barely a cloud in the sky. Christine and a then five-year-old Leilani had spent most of the morning shopping at the Montebello Town Center mall looking for a special gift. “My birthday was the day before,” explains the single mother. “Leilani insisted on buying me a small present with her allowance, something special for her mommy. I was so touched, I couldn’t refuse.” It was shaping up to be the perfect day.

Around one o’clock in the afternoon, Christine decided it was time to head home. With Leilani buckled into her car seat, enjoying a bag of cinnamon pretzel bites, she got behind the wheel of her 2006 Nissan Pathfinder, queued up Leilani’s favorite playlist, and headed for the nearest mall exit at the intersection of Plaza Drive and Montebello Boulevard.

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 out into the intersection and began to make a left turn — BAM!


Once the traffic light turned green, Christine exited from the mall and started to turn her Nissan Pathfinder (white vehicle) eastbound onto Montebello Blvd. At the same time, a Toyota Prius (red vehicle) already traveling east on Montebello ran the red light at the intersection, plowing into the SUV at approximately 40 miles per hour.

In the blink of an eye, Christine’s wonderful day turned surreal. A 2011 Toyota Prius traveling east on Montebello ran the red light at the intersection and broadsided the slow moving Pathfinder at approximately 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, the Pathfinder came to rest 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,” recalls Christine. “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.”

Car crashes are a leading cause of death among children 12 and under.22

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.



  • 679 children died in car crashes in 2011
  • A child dies every 13 hours in a car crash
  • 33% of those children were not buckled up
  • Thanks to the hard work on many fronts the number of childer dying in car crashes has declined by 58% since 1997

Rewind the clock to Saturday, October 22, 2011…

It started off as a typical Saturday morning for Christine and Leilani. “We usually like to sleep in and lounge around the house,” says the single mother. However, 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 Montebello neighborhood organized by the East Los Angeles Chapter of the National Latino Peace Officers Association (NLPOA), and sponsored by State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company (State Farm®).

The mission of this NLPOA event and others like it held all over the country is to teach families how to transport children correctly, and to
help make sure that every child is properly buckled up every time they
take a ride.

Children that are properly buckled up are 50% more likely to survive a serious crash than those who aren’t.23

According to automotive safety experts, seat belt, while important, is designed to protect passengers that are at least four feet, nine inches tall and approximately 90 pounds – i.e., a small adult or adolescent child.

When properly adjusted (the lap belt snugly over the thighs, the shoulder belt across the chest and collarbone), a seat belt anchors a person’s body to the seat, keeping them from getting thrown from the vehicle or smashing into the dashboard, windshield, or interior of the car in the case of a collision.

Child Car Seat Safety Checklist

Child car seat safety checklist thumbnail image

Are you as safe as you can be? DOWNLOAD and SHARE our simple checklist and chart that shows how to choose the right seat, install it correctly and use it properly.


According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), however, the average seat belt does not fit young children correctly.1 Often, the lap belt goes across the abdomen instead of the thighs, and the shoulder belt across the neck or face instead of the chest. In a collision, this could cause serious injury. In addition, an uncomfortable child may slip out of the restraint, unknowingly putting themselves in danger.


Car Seats Made Simple

To Ensure Your Child’s Safety, Make sure…

  • He or she is in the right seat: Developmental stage, not age, decide which type of seat to use. Make sure he or she is the right height and weight for the seat they are in.
  • The seat hasn’t expired: Yes, seats have an expiration date stamped on them – replace if yours is its past prime.
  • You have positioned the seat correctly: In a rear seat approved by the car manufacturer.
  • The seat is facing the right direction: Stay rear-facing as long as possible, at least until the child is 2 years old.
  • The seat is secure: If you can move the seat more than an inch in any direction after it’s installed, you’ve made a mistake somewhere. It’s too loose. Start over again and make it tight.
  • The top tether is connected: This one is generally for seats in the forward facing position. The tether keep your child from lurching too far forward in a collision. It is designed to protect your child’s neck and spine from serious injury.
  • The child is harnessed correctly: Fasten and tighten all clips and buckles, making sure you can’t pinch any extra webbing at the shoulder.

Convertible Seat Checklist

  • Pinch Test: With seat buckles and chest clip properly placed, pinch strap at shoulder. You should be unable to pinch any excess webbing. If you can, tighten and try again.
  • Chest Clip: Chest clip should be placed at armpit level.
  • Direction: Car seats labeled as convertible can be used as rear-facing or forward-facing. Check the seat label to find exact measurement, height and weight limits for each position. Infant seats are rear-facing only, but these guidelines for securing and using the seat still apply.
  • Inch Test: Once your car seat is installed with either seat belt or lower attachment, give it a good tug at the base where the seat belt goes through it. Can you move it more than an inch side to side or front to back? A properly installed seat will not move more than an inch. Use the tether for forward-facing seats.

Booster Seat Checklist

  • Proper Installation: Set in place and ensure seat belt follows the paths indicated. Follow all installation instructions.
  • Proper Use: Do not stop using a booster until your child truly outgrows it. Double check by taking the seat belt fit test at:
  • Be a Good Example: We know that when adults wear seat belts, kids wear seat belts. So, be a good example and buckle up.

To help remedy this issue, the first modern child safety seats were developed in the early 1960s. They were wildly unpopular and seldom used because they were bulky and uncomfortable. Public awareness of child passenger safety slowly grew. Then, in 1978, Tennessee became the first state to require parents to properly secure children under the age of four in a car seat. Seven years later, all 50 states had passed at least some car seat laws.

There have been many upgrades to car seat laws since then, including booster seat laws, informed by additional research on the effects of crashes on children. One important source of data is actually fairly recent. In 1996, State Farm and The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) formed the Partners for Child Passenger Safety (PCPS), which drew from State Farm’s database of crashes involving children and CHOP’s expertise analyzing injuries (see sidebar.)

Unfortunately, many child passenger safety advocates, such as Safe Kids Worldwide, have found that parents, grandparents and caregivers still unwittingly and unnecessarily put their kids at risk every day. Studies have shown that 73% of child safety seats and boosters are used incorrectly in one or more ways2, and that 25 percent of parents admit to improperly restraining their kids or not restraining them at all on short trips.22 Why? Because most adults are unaware of the risks involved.22

Partners for Child Passenger Safety

State Farm identified crashes involving children, obtained permission from customers to use data from these crashes for research, and shared it with The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). CHOP closely examined more than 600,000 crashes involving 875,000 children. The data was used to support the enactment of legislative measures that save the lives of hundreds of children and reduce the severity of injuries for tens of thousands of children every year.

To say the risks are great is an understatement. According to the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA), nearly 33,000 people were killed in the estimated 5,338,000 police-reported motor vehicle traffic incidents similar to the one described above– in 2011.4

That means an average of 89 people died each day in a motor vehicle crash, one every 16 minutes. Another 2,217,000 people were injured in those crashes.5

Of those deaths, 679 were children ages 12 and under (3,116 were children under the age of 19.)6 That’s one child aged 12 and under killed every 13 hours, and a leading cause of death in that age group.

Here is the kicker: Approximately a third (221) of those children were riding without a child safety seat, booster seat, or seat belt that could have saved their lives.7

Fast Forward to Oct. 22…

During a typical safety seat safety seat assessment, an expert technician –certified by one of the country’s leading child passenger safety advocate groups, such as Safe Kids – will weigh and measure your child, examine your vehicle, and then take a look at your safety seat and how it is secured.

This allows them to determine whether you have the right type of seat for your child and vehicle, and whether that restraint is properly installed. Then, the technicians will work with you, going over how to properly install and secure the seat, as well as how to properly restrain your child in it for maximum safety.

Ninety-six percent of parents,8 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.” Unfortunately, 73 percent of them have at least one installation error. And Christine was no exception. She committed three of the most common mistakes.

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 – and is – 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,” says the shocked parent. 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 second hand 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.” Many seats have expiration dates six to ten years from the date of manufacture, and owners need to check to know when it will expire.

Christine did have Leilani in the back seat, regarded as the safest place for kids to ride. Safe Kids, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), NHTSA, and most other private and government run safety advocates recommend that children under the age of 13 ride in the backseat — regardless of size and weight, or whether they are using a safety seat, booster or just a seat belt.

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 by the Prius four days later.


The 6 Most Common Mistakes Made When Using a Child Safety Seat

  • What looks like a simple piece of baby gear is actually a very sophisticated piece of safety equipment that can be quite complicated to install. To help make sure your child’s safety seat is set up properly, here are some of the most common errors to avoid when choosing and using them.

  • childseat image

    1. Picked the wrong seat for your child’s height, weight and development stage

    Try as they might, parents tend to choose seats based on personal preference or taste whether they like the color of the seat, or think it looks more comfortable or safer. It’s important to get the best value – and save a little money but it is more important to buy a car seat that fits your child now. The wrong seat won’t fully protect your child in a crash. Due diligence is essential here.

  • childseat image

    2. The seat is facing the wrong way

    If your children are under the age of 2, resist the urge to place their car seats in the forward-facing position too soon just so you can see them. Rear-facing is safer for children than riding forward-facing as it does a better job of supporting and aligning a child’s head, neck, and spine in a crash.

    A child’s head is large, disproportionate in size to their body, and their neck and spine muscles haven’t fully developed yet to support it. That is why its import to cradle a newborn’s head. In the rear-facing position, the back of the seat takes the force of the crash. Facing forward, the fragile child is susceptible to the same forces as a grown adult.

    At the very least, children should be at least 1 year old and 20 pounds before turning forward facing. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics and most other safety advocates advise parents to keep their toddlers in rear-facing car seats until age 2 or until they exceed the height or weight limit for their car seat, which can be between 25-45 pounds depending on the seat.

  • childseat image

    3. Seat is too loose.

    When installing a car seat, it’s essential to make sure the seat is held firmly in place. In an accident, a loose seat provides less protection and can become a projectile. Consequently, make sure you perform the “Inch Test†on the seat before putting the child in it. If you can move the seat more than an inch in any direction after it’s installed, you’ve made a mistake somewhere. The seat is too loose. Start over again and make sure it fits tight.

  • childseat image

    4. The child safety harness is too loose.

    After the seat is installed properly, you also have to make sure the child is secure in it. It is important to tighten and properly align the safety harness and make sure it is coming from the correct harness slot. Every seat is different so please check the instruction manual. Fasten all clips and buckles, position the chest clip at armpit level, and tighten the straps. If you can pinch any extra webbing at the shoulder, the straps are too loose. Tighten them up!

  • childseat image

    5. Not using the top tether when securing the seat

    An Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study found that the top tether is used in only half of car seats installed. Why? Parents felt it was unnecessary. Wrong. The top tether significantly reduces a child’s potential for head and other injuries in a crash by decreasing (by four to six inches) how far that child’s head moves forward. This could, for instance, keep your child’s head from hitting the back of the front seat, the door frame or window in a collision, decreasing his or her chance of having a brain or spinal cord injury.

  • childseat image

    6. The seat has expired

    A lot of people don’t know this, but all child safety seats have an expiration date. Everything degrades over time and after some hefty wear and tear. That includes child seats. Many seats have expiration dates six to ten years from the date of manufacture, and owners need to check to know when it will expire.

After the evaluation was complete, Christine was both frustrated and 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 — step-by-step — and how to properly restrain Leilani in it: the harness locked properly, the chest clip positioned at armpit level, and the harness fitted tight enough to the child that you can’t pinch the strap at shoulder level and feel any excess webbing. “It was intense and [humbling], learning that I was putting my daughter at risk,” admits Christine.

Safety seat inspections and child passenger safety events are not meant to point out a parent, grandparent or caregiver’s shortcomings. They aim to educate people who might unknowingly put children at risk — not due to negligence, but due to lack of information. “We know that [restraining a child] can be challenging,” says Chris Mullen, Director of Technology Research in the Strategic Resources Department at State Farm. “The safety seats can be difficult to install, and children can’t understand the benefits, so they often rebel against being restrained. However, having your child properly restrained is one of the most effective things that you can do to protect a child in the event of a collision or crash.”


The day of the crash, Montebello Police Officer Oscar Chavez was the first officer on the scene, and was surprised to find no one seriously hurt: "Not many people walk-away from such a wreck unscathed."

Fast-forward to October 26 at the scene of the crash

Montebello Police Officer Oscar Chavez was the first emergency responder to reach the crash site.“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,” he says. “But that wasn’t the case here. When I inspected the SUV, no one was in it.”After making sure Leilani was OK, Christine had freed herself from the wreckage, did the same for Leilani, and quickly got out of the way of further harm — namely oncoming traffic. The driver of the Prius, likewise unharmed, was nearby.

“Ms. Lopez was busy tending to her daughter, examining the vehicle and taking photos of the crash site,” says Officer Chavez. “We don’t normally see a motorist involved in this serious of a collision walk away without a scratch, especially a child. But Ms. Lopez was lucid and didn’t appear in need of medical assistance. Neither did her daughter. It was amazing, and says a lot about proper use of restraints.”

Unfortunately, 1 in 4 parents admit to having driven with their children unrestrained.22

Back a half-century: The evolution of safety restraints

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 Pathfinder’s stock seat belt played a critical role, too. It quite possibly saved Christine’s life.

Credited with being the most important and effective automotive safety feature ever devised,10 the seat belt didn’t exactly start out that way. The first seat belts appeared in the late 1800s, and were what we would call aftermarket add-ons today (installed by the vehicle owner, not the factory). Since there were few automobiles back then, car-to-car collisions weren’t a real concern. Instead, the belts were primarily used as a means of keeping occupants more comfortable during bumpy rides.11 It wasn’t until the 1950s that the automotive industry recognized the potential safety benefits of seat belts, and began installing lap and sash type belts during production at the factory.12

Then, in 1958, Nils Bohlin changed the fate of the seat belt forever.13 Volvo’s first safety engineer, Bohlin developed the three-point safety restraint from one continuous belt. One section ran diagonally across the body while another section crossed the lap — for both lap and chest restraint. The single belt was anchored to the car’s frame by three connections. With just one motion and a simple click into a side buckle, passengers were protected from serious injury. It was both effective and comfortable. The modern seat belt was born.

The auto industry did not initially jump on board with the innovation. Automakers felt that talking about safety equipment would scare the public, not reassure it. That is, until safety issues jumped into the limelight in the mid -1960s, thanks to a small group of legislators, consumer safety advocates, and lawyers — most prominently, Ralph Nader. As a result, the Highway Safety Act and the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act were passed in 1966.14 The legislation authorized the federal government to set and regulate motor vehicle and highway standards, and also created the National Highway Safety Bureau, which later became the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.


Using a seat belt reduces the risk of death to a passenger who is traveling in the backseat at the time of a car crash by 45%, and being injured by 50%.21

Seat Belt Laws
Save Lives

The simple seat belt is a major factor in saving lives in auto crashes – and yet for decades barely one in ten people used them. A concerted effort to make buckling up a legal requirement, coupled with a variety of awareness campaigns and strict enforcement, finally helped this innovation save more lives. Seatbelts have contributed significantly to the decades-long decline in fatality rates and numbers of people killed in auto crashes in the U.S.


Read more about key developments in the history of auto safety

Read more about key developments in the history of auto safety in our interactive timeline

The resulting improvements in auto design were significant, including making seat belts standard equipment in every car. It took seven years, however, before the regulation was amended to require the safer, but more expensive, three-point continuous harnesses.

Still, most people continued to ignore the potential safety benefits of seat belts. Usage was calculated at less than 15 percent of the driving public in the early seventies.

That’s when NHTSA began an ambitious program to make American automobiles safer for their occupants, whether they liked it or not, and passed Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208 — aka, the airbags or passive restraints rule — in 1970.15

The federal government proposed that all vehicles manufactured after January 1, 1973 be equipped with an automatic restraint mechanism – that meant airbags or automated seat belts. Most seat belts are manual, which means each driver and passenger has the choice of whether or not to buckle up. An automated restraint system, by definition, requires no action on the part of motor vehicle operator or passenger to be effective.

Consequently, automated belts were all the rage. There were basically two types. First, there was the sash version that was mounted in place so the driver or passenger had to slide in underneath the belt to get into the car. The second kind had a motor that slid it into place when the driver turned the ignition key.

In 1977, Secretary of Transportation Brock Adams took the standard a step further, requiring all passenger vehicles to have some form of automatic restraint – meaning automatic seat belts or airbags – by 1983. This did not sit well with automakers, who complained they would incur the costs of automatic restraint systems. There also were issues surrounding the safety benefits of these restraints. Automatic seat belts could be easily defeated and were often viewed as a nuisance by the public. And airbags, which were not yet in widespread use, were considered too expensive and had a reputation of doing more damage than good when deployed, including some early designs that caused some fatal injuries.

Forward to the 1980s and the dawn of the airbag era

The standard was debated, delayed, altered, and eventually rescinded by NHTSA in 1981. So the insurance industry decided to fight for the standard, both because motor vehicle crashes, injuries, and fatalities are costly and because they felt that the stronger safety standards were in the best interest of the public. Consequently, State Farm stepped up and brought NHTSA to court, fighting the decision all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 1983 ruled in favor of the insurance company, and NHTSA was ordered to write a regulation for automatic occupant restraint systems.

This paved the way for the pervasiveness of airbags today. While the ruling didn’t specify airbags as the solution of choice, over the coming decade newer, better airbags won out over the automatic seat belts when automakers designed their cars to meet the new standard.

Since then, a lot has transpired. Mandatory seat belt use laws have been passed in every state except New Hampshire. Enforcement has helped increase usage thanks to safety initiatives like “Click it or Ticket.” These laws have proved effective at both increasing seat belt usage and decreasing traffic fatalities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that seat belt use nationwide increased from 11 percent in 1981 to more than 84 percent in 2013.16 And NHTSA also estimates that seat belts alone save 9,500 lives in America each year reducing a person’s chances of dying in a crash by 45% and being injured by more than 50%.3  

The IIHS estimates airbags saved more than 28,000 lives between 1998 and 2011, and, when combined with seat belts, reduce fatality risk by 61 percent.3 The Institute also found that side airbags can reduce fatality rates by 37 percent in cars and 52 percent in SUVs.3

Experts estimate that airbags have saved nearly 28,000 lives since 1998.19

And airbags have become standard equipment on all automobiles thanks to 1991’s Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, which made NHTSA require both driver’s side and passenger airbags in all new vehicles by 1998.

Helping Airbags
Save Lives

Despite the early promise of airbags as a life-saving device, a recommendation that airbags or other “passive” (automatic) safety devices be installed in cars was almost dropped from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s standards. State Farm took the case for airbags to court, eventually reaching the United States Supreme Court. In 1983, a ruling by the Supreme Court in favor of State Farm paved the way for airbags to become widely adopted.


Christine and Leilani may have moved on from what happened at this intersection three years ago, but they will never forget.

In the present…

It has been almost three years since Christine and Leilani dangled upside down on Montebello Boulevard. Both are back to their routine: “I drop her at school, go to work, pick her up when after-school activities are done, and then we come home for playtime at the house – you know, coloring, dancing, singing, playing soccer, whatever,” explains the proud mother.


While the physical bumps and bruises have all healed and faded away, 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.’”

Post-crash, Christine insists she is more cautious behind the wheel. “I always remember to look both ways when entering traffic, even at a stoplight, and I am much more aware of what’s going on around me when I am driving.”

And passenger safety is always a first concern: “I always strap Leilani in by the book. Before the crash, Leilani would sometimes say, ‘Mommy the [seat harness] is too tight’ and I would loosen it a bit to make her more comfortable. Now, I say things like, ‘It’s for your own good. That’s how it has to be.’” And Leilani makes sure her mommy is always buckled up, too. “If it looks like I’m going to forget, she gives me [the business],” admits Christine.

But mostly, Christine 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.


Make Auto Safety a Priority

Christine and Leilani’s story underscores a harsh truth about auto crashes – they can happen anywhere, at any time, in the blink of an eye, even if you are a very safe driver. So get actively engaged in your own safety and that of your passengers:

What To Do Next:

Get a Car Seat Inspection:
Several organizations, including Safe Kids, offer free inspection events. So do some local police departments. Watch for inspection events in your community. Search for an event at
Do a Self Check:
When you know what to look for, you can catch and correct common mistakes yourself. Take 5 minutes, download our checklist, and bring it to your car. Or share it with anyone who drives young kids.
Become an Inspector:
Safe Kids is looking for volunteers who want to help families in their communities. Be a good neighbor! Learn how you can become a certified car seat technician and help keep kids safe.
Read More Stories Like This:
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9. CDC,
15. CDC,
16. NHTSA,

*Depiction for the purpose of this article is not intended to cause or further a perception by the California Highway Patrol as an endorsement or affiliation by the Department.