New Report Shows Placing Children in Back Seat of Vehicle Results in Major Fatality Reductions

August 17, 2005

A new study shows that a dramatic shift in behavior by parents to place children in a back seat of vehicles, coupled with increased use of child safety seats and safety belts, resulted in an 18 percent reduction in overall fatalities among children ages 0-12. Front seat fatalities declined by 46 percent. The study of child fatality trends appears in the upcoming issue of the National Safety Council’s Journal of Safety Research (Volume 36, Number 4).

“This is the clearest evidence we’ve seen that the national public health campaigns begun in 1996 to get children properly restrained in a back seat are working, and paying off,” said Phil Haseltine, executive director of the Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign of the National Safety Council. “More children are surviving in motor vehicle crashes because of these efforts.”

The study examined fatality trends between 1992 and 2003 using the
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data, police-reported crash data, the NHTSA National Occupant Protection Use Surveys (NOPUS), and earlier NHTSA child fatality studies.

In response to increases in child fatalities from traffic crashes,
including deaths associated with passenger air bags, the automobile and insurance industries, government and safety advocates undertook major campaigns to move children ages 12 and under from the front seat, and to increase child safety seat and safety belt use. The study’s authors credit these collective public health actions for the reduction in front seat deaths, and the resulting decline in fatalities overall.

“This study is indeed good news. But we must never let our guard down, especially in educating new parents,” said NHTSA Administrator Jeffrey Runge, MD. “We need to constantly remind them that kids under 12 always should be properly restrained in the back seat on every trip.”

According to the study, the immediacy and magnitude of the post-1996 reductions in front-seat deaths among younger children — particularly infants-provided the strongest evidence of change associated with programs implemented in 1996. The analysis showed the shift to be more immediate among younger children, although older children also experienced a significant decline in total deaths after 1998.

“Getting children to ride in a back seat of cars has demonstrated one of the most remarkably successful changes in societal behavior in recent decades, rivaling changes in attitudes toward smoking and drunk driving,” said National Transportation Safety Board Acting Chairman Mark Rosenker. “In this case, we are directly saving the lives of hundreds of our children every year.”

One of the principal efforts launched in 1996 to get children properly
restrained in a rear seat was the Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign, funded by a private coalition of auto and insurance companies and occupant restraint manufacturers, in partnership with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board and scores of safety organizations, including law enforcement agencies at all levels.

The Campaign implemented a massive public education program to make parents aware of the dangers of placing children in the front seats of vehicles equipped with passenger air bags, and the importance of properly buckling up children on every ride.

Other factors that likely contributed to the fatality reductions include
reduced force air bags and increased safety belt use due to the enactment of primary enforcement belt use laws and high-visibility enforcement of these laws.

Study co-author, Dr. James Nichols said, “These findings show that the public and private sector resources expended since 1996 have prevented hundreds of deaths among young children.” The study, entitled: “The Impact of a Nationwide Effort to Reduce Air Bag-Related Deaths among Children: An Examination of Fatality Trends among Younger and Older Age Groups,” was also authored by Donna Glassbrenner, PhD and Richard Compton, PhD, of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“The message of these findings for parents is simple: Old air bag, new air bag, no air bag-children are safer in back,” added Haseltine.

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