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Belting Down the Highway

Buckling up definitely the ticket to cutting auto deaths and injuries, particularly for kids

MONDAY, May 21, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Forcing people to use seat belts, cracking down on how children are restrained in vehicles -- and letting police stop cars and hand out tickets for these reasons will cut down on vehicular crash fatalities and injuries, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Add rewarding seat belt usage and alerting the public to increased police patrols, and you just might make a dent in the more than 41,000 deaths, 500,000 hospitalizations and 4 million emergency room visits that are attributed annually to motor vehicle accidents, the agency says.

"We wanted to try and do something about motor vehicle injuries to children," says Dr. Stephani Zaza, chief of the CDC's community guide branch in Atlanta, Ga. "We wanted to figure out what the one thing [was] we can do to improve rates of injuries and figure out what the biggest thing [is] we could do to get children buckled up in child safety seats."

To figure out how to get parents to use child safety seats, Zaza formed a task force of health care providers, state and local health department personnel, academicians and policy makers. They reviewed studies of community-based programs that increased the use of child safety seats and seat belts. The task force also tried to find out the best ways to reduce drunk driving.

In 17 states and the District of Columbia, police can stop a vehicle just because the adults inside aren't using their seat belts. In other states, police need more reason than that to stop a car -- say, running a stop sign -- before they can hand out a ticket for a seat-belt violation. However, all 50 states have laws that allow police to stop a car solely because a child is not restrained correctly, Zaza says.

Injuries from motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 1 and 34, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

"We identified five key strategies and then searched the literature to look for studies that evaluated the success of those strategies," Zaza explains.

The panel strongly recommended:

  • requiring the use of child safety seats and seat belts
  • giving child safety seats to parents and educating them on their use
  • allowing police to stop a vehicle solely for an observed belt law violation
  • enhancing safety belt enforcement by such things as stepping up enforcement at certain locations and times to target violations
  • lowering the legal blood alcohol concentration for adult driver to 0.08 percent, a level that many, but not all, states now enforce.

"What we found was that laws requiring the use of child safety seats were very effective in getting parents to use the seats," Zaza says. "And we found that if enforcement was enhanced, if police used check points and increased patrols, child safety seat use increased."

"We've got one going on in Atlanta, called the 'Click It or Ticket Campaign'," Zaza says. "They've been telling parents and drivers that there's going to be check points and increased patrols looking for kids in child safety seats. And if they're not in the seats, they get a ticket. These kinds of campaigns are effective."

Zaza says that programs that get child safety seats to parents and drivers work well also. "We know of programs that provide a seat for free, as a giveaway, or they'll loan parents a child safety seat or they'll rent it to them. We found that those were very effective."

These recommendations were in a recent issue of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Recommendations and Reports.

Getting car safety seats to families works extremely well, according to the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic lobbying organization.

"It's a really big hit with our community-based affiliates," says Lisa Navarrete, a spokeswoman for the council in Washington, D.C. "We have distributed car seats to at least 50,000 families in a program that started two years ago -- a joint program with the National Safety Council and General Motors."

The free car seats coupled with education have been a boon to the Hispanic community, Navarrete says. "Given how many Hispanic families are near or below the poverty line, this is a particular issue. And the statistics are pretty grim."

"Forty percent of all American kids ride without any kind of restraints in the car," she adds. "Use of a car seat reduces a child's risk of death by 70 percent."

What To Do

For more information on child passenger safety, visit the The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or the National Seat Belt Coalition.

And don't forget these HealthDay stories on seat belts.

SOURCES: Interviews with Stephani Zaza, M.D., chief, CDC's community guide branch, Atlanta, Ga.; and Lisa Navarette, spokeswoman, National Council of La Raza, Washington, D.C.; May 18, 2001 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), Recommendations and Reports
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