MONDAY, July 18, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Some parents may hesitate to let their children ride in a car driven by grandparents because they believe the grandparent's driving skills may not be what they once were.
But, new research suggests that children are actually safer in auto accidents when a grandparent is at the wheel instead of a parent.
As a matter of fact, the odds of a child being injured in an auto accident were 50 percent less when a grandparent was driving.
However, one area where grandparents were found somewhat lacking was in child safety seat use. More than 25 percent of grandparents were lacking "optimal" child restraint use, and 2 percent of grandparents skipped child restraints altogether.
"More of the baby boomers are coming into grandparenthood now, and this important group of drivers of young children hadn't really been looked at critically," said study author Dr. Fred Henretig, an emergency room attending physician at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and a grandfather himself. "Grandparents were a little bit less up-to-date on child restraints, but we discovered that the injury rate was lower in grandparent driver crashes," he noted.
"Something is going on. It looks like grandparents are doing something protective, but our study can't answer what that is," said Henretig, who added that he hopes this study stimulates even more research into the issue.
Results of the study will be published online July 18, and in the August issue of Pediatrics.
In general, older adults -- particularly after age 65 -- are more likely to be involved in automobile accidents, according to background information in the study. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that about 38 million American drivers are older than 65.
The study included insurance data on motor vehicle accidents that occurred from January 2003 through November 2007. The information was gathered as part of the Partners for Child Passenger Safety Study.
To be included in the study, there had to be at least one passenger who was under the age of 16.
The researchers found that grandparents were driving in 1,143 of the accidents, while parents were behind the wheel for 10,716. That means that grandparents make up about 9.5 percent of the drivers, yet the researchers discovered that grandparent accidents cause only 6.6 percent of the total injuries.
Children riding with a parent had a 5 percent increased risk of being injured in an accident, while the children cruising with a grandparent were 30 percent less likely to be injured in a crash, according to the study.
After adjusting the data to account for confounding factors, such as the type of car and the severity of the crash, the researchers concluded that children riding with their grandparents were 50 percent less likely to be injured in an accident.
And, if all grandparents could be current on child restraints, that number might be even higher. About three out of every four grandparents were using "optimal" child restraints.
"Parents should feel that grandparents aren't necessarily more dangerous behind the wheel, but grandparents do need to be carefully shown how to use the child safety restraint equipment," said Henretig.
Lynn Purdy, a registered nurse and program coordinator for the Child Passenger Safety Program, at La Rabida Children's Hospital in Chicago, said she wasn't sure why grandparents' driving might prove safer in a crash, but suspected they might drive a little slower.
What may be more important, she noted, is that grandparents don't always use the most current child restraint techniques. "This is something to consider for whoever might be driving kids around," said Purdy.
She said that child restraint systems aren't always easy to use or install. The installation process can be so complicated that certified Child Passenger Safety Technicians have to attend classes for up to seven days, she added.
Purdy advised that anyone with a child safety seat in their car should try to take it to a certified technician to ensure that it's properly installed and being used properly.
Learn more about child safety seats from Safe Kids USA.