In the United States, car accidents represent the highest cause of death for children above the age of 3 and are responsible for over 140,000 children’s visits to the emergency room each year.

Despite this, new research published in the September issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine has revealed that only a small percentage of children in the U.S. are using age-appropriate safety restraints and many children are seated in the front seat and exposed to risk.

In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued new Guidelines for Child Passenger Safety, which recommend that until at least the age of two infants are seated in rear-facing car seats and forward-facing car seats with a five-point harness until the child has reached the maximum weight and height suggested by the manufacturer. It further recommends booster seats until an adult seat belt fits properly, i.e. when a child reaches around 57″ in height, which is the average height of an 11 year old and that children up to the age of 13 are seated in the back.

Co-authors Michelle L. Macy, MD, MS, and Gary L. Freed, MD, MPH, who both work at the University of Michigan at the Child Health Evaluation and Research Unit, Division of General Pediatrics, C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, said: “We found that few children remain rear-facing after age 1, fewer than 2% use a booster seat after age 7, many over age six sit in the front seat.”

The team collected and examined three years of data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) National Survey on the Use of Booster Seats (NSUBS) prior to the new guidelines being released. They observed and recording information of drivers with child passengers arriving at community sites, such as fast food restaurants, gas stations, recreation centers, and child care centers, which included information like the child restraint type and seat row, driver restraint use, passengers gender, and vehicle type. They also surveyed the drivers with regard to their own age and that of the children in the car, the child race, and Hispanic ethnicity. Overall, the team collected and analyzed data of 21,476 children.

They noted that using child safety seats and allowing children to be unrestrained in the car increased with the children’s age and that in each age group children from minority backgrounds were less likely to wear age-appropriate restraint compared with white children.

The differences in the percentage of black and Hispanic unrestrained children ranged from 10 times amongst infants and toddlers to double the amount for older age groups in comparison with white children. The percentage of rear-facing car seats was lowest amongst minority groups in the 0-3 year age group, and only 17% of white children were seated in rear-facing car seats. The team also noted that a higher percentage of minority children were transitioned to seat belts prematurely.

Dr. Macy states:

“The most important finding from this study is that, while age and racial disparities exist, overall few children are using the restraints recommended for their age group, and many children over five are sitting in the front seat. Our findings demonstrate that not all children have been reached equally by community-based public education campaigns and the passage of child safety seat laws in 48 states. Further development and dissemination of culturally specific programs that have demonstrated success in promoting restraint use among minority children are necessary. Further, the findings may also help in developing strategies to lower the racial and ethnic disparities seen in children experiencing crash-related injuries.”

Written by Petra Rattue