Safety Advocates Urge Back Seat Belts for ‘Tweens’

February 20, 2006

With 8- to 12-year-olds dying at a rate of more than one a day in automobile crashes, safety groups are pushing for more youngsters to remain belted in the back seat.

In the past, safety experts have focused their attention on getting younger children into child safety seats and booster seats to keep them secure and protect them in crashes.

But a report released last week by the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety raises questions about how frequently “tweens” — children between ages 8 and 12 — are wearing their seat belts and whether they’re sitting snugly in the back seat.

Conducting pilot projects in Dallas and Joplin, Missouri, the nonprofit group, whose members include several automakers, found that about one-third of the children surveyed — and half of the 12-year-olds — sat in the front seat.

In Joplin, about 63 percent of the children said they always wear their seat belts while about 53 percent of the Dallas children said they were always belted.

Safety experts said the findings were troubling because the belt use falls well below the national use rate of 82 percent. It also highlights an underlying problem: in 2004, 417 children between the ages of 8 and 12 died in traffic crashes, an average of more than one per day.

“These findings clearly show that too many children age 12 and under are riding at risk in cars because they are not properly restrained in rear seats,” said Mark Rosenker, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

The report was based on surveys completed by more than 400 children in both locations and had a margin of error of 5 percentage points.

The government recommends that parents have any infant up to 20 pounds ride in a rear-facing child seat and any toddler weighing 20 to 40 pounds ride in a child seat with a harness. The government says a child heavier than 40 pounds but not yet 4 feet 9 inches tall should be in a booster seat.

All children are advised to ride in the back seat until age 13.

Gary MacDonald, a Dallas minister who survived a traffic crash with his family last month, said the advice is critical. He has always required his children to wear seat belts and was relieved when his 12-year-old son, Josh, emerged from their crash with only bruises.

“We were a half-mile from our house. Josh could’ve been hurt terribly or worse,” said MacDonald, who fractured his right knee cap in the crash. “That insistence goes a long way.”

The government and several safety groups are discussing ways of improving child passenger safety this week as part of an annual campaign.

The campaign came a week after pop star Britney Spears was photographed driving with her 4-month-old son seated on her lap instead of strapped into a car seat.

Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said Monday that Spears’ behavior was “irresponsible.”

The auto coalition said its Missouri survey found a strong parental influence; more than 9 in 10 children of parents who always wear seat belts follow their parents’ example. But among the children of parents who do not always wear seat belts, only about 6 in 10 always buckle up.

The group recommends that parents offer themselves as role models and buckle up. Other pieces of advice: letting children choose the radio station in exchange for sitting in the back seat and buckling up, banning handheld electronic games if children sit in the front and stressing that seat belt use is required by law.

Tween Safety:

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