Car crashes are the number one killer of children in the United States between one and 13 years old. A new study published today by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reveals why kids are at risk—too few parents are using child safety seats or are using the incorrect seats, and too many are letting their kids ride up front.
The study, "Child Passenger Safety Practices in the U.S.", by two researchers at the University of Michigan, showed that few children remain in rear-facing car seats after age one, that fewer than 2 percent use a booster seat after age seven, and that many children over age six ride in the front seat. Researchers also found that compliance with local child seat laws drops off as children grow older, and that far fewer black and Hispanic children are secured in child safety seats than white children. The difference is particularly stark among younger children, where the rate of improperly restrained minority kids was 10 times that of whites. (Original press release.)
Parents who did not wear their own seatbelts were also much more likely to have unrestrained or improperly restrained kids in the car.
The researchers evaluated three years of data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Then data collectors observed and recorded drivers with 21,476 child passengers as they arrived at gas stations, fast-food restaurants, recreation centers, and child-care centers. They recorded child restraint type and seat row, adult and child gender, driver restraint use, and vehicle type. Drivers were interviewed to report their own age, the ages of the children they were transporting, child race, and Hispanic ethnicity.
How to keep your kids safe
To ensure your kids' safety, don't be overly anxious to graduate them to the next step in car seats, as each step may actually represent a step back in protection. The latest guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends that children should remain rear facing up until they reach the age of two or when they reach the height or weight limits of a rear-facing seat.
If your child grows out of the portable infant seat before they reach age 2, you should purchase a convertible seat that can remain rear facing longer. Once they are over the size limits, you can rotate the seat to face forward. A child should be in a forward-facing seat with a harness until they reach the height or weight limit of the seat, typically, from 40-65 lbs. and around 50 inches. Again, longer is better, so parents should look for a seat with the highest possible weight and height limits that fits well in their car.
Children should continue to ride in a booster seat until the vehicle seat belts fit properly, which usually is around age 8 and at least 57 inches tall, the average height of an 11 year old.
Even then, safety advocates advise keeping kids in the back seat until they are 13, or even until they reach driving age. The most common type of fatal crash is a front crash, so sitting in the rear keeps kids farther away from most accident forces. The force of air bag deployment is also dangerous and can be deadly to young children.
"It can be tempting to 'graduate' your child to the next level of restraint or the front seat as often that change is more convenient, but when parents better understand the increased risk for injury or worse, they are more likely to delay for the safety of their children," says Jennifer Stockburger, program manager for vehicle and child safety at the Consumer Reports Auto Test Center. (See our car seat timeline.)
Keeping kids restrained is just one part of the safety equation, however. Other NHTSA research shows that 80 percent of car seats may not be installed properly.