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Fewer Kids Riding in Front Seat

But young solo passengers over age 6 still do, crash data reveals

THURSDAY, Aug. 23, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Although more parents are making sure their kids sit in the back seat of the car, it's much less likely if the child is the only passenger, a new study shows.

A review of all fatal car crashes in the United States from 1990 to 1998 revealed an 11 percent decline in the number of children under the age of 6 who were seated up front. But it also showed that a child over 6 who was traveling alone with the driver was five times more likely be in the front passenger seat.

Experts have always maintained that children are safest riding in the back seat, and the researchers say future safety efforts should be aimed at cementing that pattern.

"We've been looking at the effect of air bags on children for at least five years," says study author Eve Wittenberg, a researcher at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. "What we wanted to do was look at the changes in behavior over the past 10 years, and so we looked at fatal car crash data, which is the largest source of national car data available."

Wittenberg says publicity over air bag fatalities involving kids sparked a national media campaign. "The first child fatality from an air bag was in 1993, and it was one of those very low-speed bumper accidents where the air bag inflated and the child was killed," she says.

In looking at the data to determine where children were seated in car accidents, Wittenberg says the research showed that "the number of vehicles that had children in the front went from 42 percent in 1990 down to 31 percent at the end of 1998."

It also showed that children under 6 "were more often in the back seat than older children. The improvements in seating behavior were much more dramatic for younger children than older."

But in cases involving a driver and a single passenger who was a child, the results were not so positive. In those cases, "the child was five times more likely to be in the front," she says. "However if there was three or more people in the car, the child tended to be in the back."

Older passengers appear to get first dibs for the front seat, according to Wittenberg. "It's a hierarchy thing," she says.

But if the front seat is otherwise vacant, then a child may be seated there, she speculates.

"Drivers have also told us that the difficulty of turning around and responding to a child while driving has been used as a justification for putting a younger child in the front seat," she adds.

The findings appear in the current issue of Pediatrics.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that in 1999, there were a total of 41,611 U.S. traffic fatalities. Children under the age of 15 were the victims in 5 percent of all vehicle fatalities.

Drivers need to get the message that all children should be in the back seat, says David Kelly, the senior program manager for the Air Bag and Seat Belt Safety Campaign in Washington, D.C.

"We've been focusing our message on kids 12 and under, to get them in the back seat," Kelly explains. "What you see is generally that children up to the age of 5 are in a car seat, but once they get out of that car seat, that's when they start to migrate to the front.

"So the findings of this study reinforce what we've been doing [in getting the message out] and reinforces the information we get from our yearly survey," he adds.

Kelly stresses that the important point to understand is: "Once kids get into the habit of sitting in the back seat, that's where they are going to be comfortable. When you make exceptions for a kid to sit in the front seat occasionally, that's when you're going to run into problems."

What To Do: For more information on child passenger safety, see the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the Air Bag and Seat Belt Safety Campaign.

SOURCES: Interviews with Eve Wittenberg, Ph.D., researcher, Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, Boston; David Kelly, senior program manager, Air Bag and Seat Belt Safety Campaign, Washington, D.C.; August 2001 Pediatrics
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