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Kids' Seat Belt Use Incorrect or Absent, Survey Finds

One third aren't being restrained correctly; some still don't wear seat belts

THURSDAY, Feb. 7, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- The news is enough to make safety experts carsick.

A groundbreaking survey released today reveals that one-third of vehicle passengers under the age of 15 aren't being restrained correctly, almost two-thirds of those requiring a booster seat aren't restrained correctly, and 14 percent of all kids under 15 don't use seat belts at all.

"The message is that [about] half of parents are still making major mistakes when it comes to protecting children in cars. That's frankly inexcusable," says Heather Paul, executive director of the National SAFE KIDS Campaign, which commissioned the survey.

From November 2001 to January, certified investigators from local chapters of the Washington, D.C.-based organization randomly observed 9,332 children traveling in 6,297 vehicles. In 48 states and the District of Columbia, the investigators watched children at 174 locations, ranging from fast-food restaurants to gas stations.

The investigators found that 63 percent of children who should have been in booster seats were incorrectly restrained. Typically, children aged 4 through 8 should be placed in booster seats, which let seat belts designed for larger people work properly on kids.

Seat belt safety -- or the lack of it -- appeared to run in families. Almost 40 percent of children who were unrestrained were riding with unbelted drivers; only 5 percent of kids riding with belted drivers left their seat belts off.

The study also found older children and minority children were less likely to be restrained properly.

"There are no excuses for being unbuckled at any time, even for just a short trip to the store or school," Paul says. "A child or adolescent needs to be buckled up every single moment in a moving vehicle."

Paul says it isn't clear if drivers who allow their children to ride unrestrained are more likely to drive carelessly.

This is not the first survey to report children aren't being restrained properly. A recent study in San Francisco found that 93 percent of child seats were installed incorrectly or misused. Parents frequently failed to secure the seats properly or didn't tighten the restraints within the seats.

The most important numbers in the new study are those that show 14 percent of kids are unrestrained, says Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "That's where the biggest threat is," he says.

Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for children aged 1 through 14. In 2000, 1,875 children died in motor vehicle crashes, according to federal statistics. In 1999, an estimated 272,000 were injured.

Fewer than 40 percent of children who die in car accidents wear seat belts, Rader says.

Rader says states need to crack down on adult drivers who let their children ride unrestrained. While all 50 states have laws about children in cars, many of the regulations have loopholes, he says. In addition, some states don't enforce their laws for out-of-state drivers.

States also have a variety of laws about child seats. Some require their use for kids up to age 4 or a weight of 40 pounds; others, like California, require them up to age 6 or 60 pounds.

What To Do

Child Passenger Safety Week runs from Feb. 10-16.

Learn about car safety for kids and check the regulations in your state by visiting the National Safe Kids Campaign.

Did you know that placing a child under age 13 in the back seat reduces the risk of a fatality by 36 percent? Learn more by reading this fact sheet from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

SOURCES: Interviews with Heather Paul, Ph.D., executive director, National SAFE KIDS Campaign, Washington, D.C.; Russ Rader, spokesman, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Arlington, Va.
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