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SUVs No Safer for Kids Than Passenger Cars

More rollovers mean more injuries for children, study finds

TUESDAY, Jan. 3, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Despite the public perception that SUVs are safer than passenger cars for family driving, a new report shows the bigger vehicles are no better at preventing children's injuries in accidents.

"Many people just assume that the extra weight and size of an SUV makes them safer, but what we found was that the potential benefits were canceled by the SUVs' increased likelihood of rolling over," said study co-author Dr. Dennis Durbin, an emergency room doctor at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

"The message for parents is that SUVs are no safer, and that they should know the importance of ensuring that their children are properly restrained for their age on every trip in the car."

The study results appear in the January issue of Pediatrics.

Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, told the Associated Press that he had not seen the study but cited government research released last summer that found SUVs have become less top-heavy since 2000 and made improvements in rollover resistance. "SUVs have an exceptional safety record and are safer than or as safe as cars in the vast majority of crashes," Shosteck said.

In their review of car crashes involving nearly 4,000 children from infancy to the age of 15, Durbin and his colleagues found that rollovers occurred twice as frequently in SUVs as passenger cars, and that children involved in rollover crashes were three times more likely to be injured than children in crashes not involving rollovers.

Further, the children who weren't appropriately restrained in SUVs in rollover accidents were at a 25-fold greater risk for injury compared to appropriately restrained children in the SUVs. And nearly half of these unrestrained children suffered serious injuries, compared to only 3 percent of the children who were properly restrained.

This information is important, Durbin said, because although passenger cars are still the vehicle of choice for most families -- 61.8 percent of the children in the study were in passenger cars compared to 38.2 percent who were riding in SUVs -- SUVs are becoming increasingly popular. The number of SUV registrations rose by 250 percent between 1995 and 2002, and part of their popularity is due to the perception that they are safer, he noted.

Second, he said, "most previous research on SUV safety was focused on adults, and this demonstrates the burden that rollovers impart to children."

Durbin's study is part of an ongoing research collaboration between Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm Insurance Co.'s program called Partners for Child Passenger Safety, begun in 1997 to create a database on children in motor vehicle crashes. With information on more than 557,000 children involved in car crashes, it is the world's largest study of children in motor vehicle crashes, the researchers said.

Durbin said motor vehicle crashes remain a leading cause of death of children, and with 1.5 million children in car crashes every year, "it is a significant public health problem."

Bella Dinh-Zarr, national director of Traffic Safety Policy for AAA, said this study contains new and interesting information: "We've all been curious whether the size and weight of SUVs overcame the rollover risk."

By showing that SUVs are no safer than passenger cars, she said, the focus of child safety in cars should be on safe seating in the car.

"No matter what vehicle you transport your children in, keep them in the back seat and properly restrain them in age-appropriate seatbelts," she said.

Among the recommendations Dinh-Zarr gave for safe seating:

  • Children under 1 who weigh 20 pounds or less should be in a backward-facing car seat in the back seat;
  • Older children should be in a forward-facing car seat in the back, and can graduate to a booster seat as they grow (they can sit safely without a booster seat when they are tall enough to sit on the regular car seat with their back flush with the back of the seat and their knees bent naturally at the front of the seat);
  • The seatbelt should cross children at the shoulder, not the neck;
  • Children should ride in the back seat until they are 13, as the back seat is much safer than the front seat.

Aware of the problem of rollovers in SUVs, Congress last summer passed a transportation bill that requires the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to establish standards that will reduce vehicle rollover crashes for SUVs and other passenger cars.

More information

For help in choosing and installing the right car seat for your child, go to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

SOURCES: Dennis R. Durbin, M.D., M.S.C.E., emergency room physician, clinical epidemiologist, The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia; Bella Dinh-Zarr, Ph.D., national director, Traffic Safety Policy, AAA, Washington, D.C.; January 2006, Pediatrics
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