The Need to Promote Occupant Restraint Use for Children, Youth and Young Adults
The use of occupant restraints must be reinforced at an early age to reduce the disproportionately high rates of death and injury that teens and young adults experience in motor vehicle crashes. But parents cannot bear the burden by themselves. In communities across the country, health professionals, law enforcement officers, educators, elected officials and public employees, and every adult, not just parents, must develop the social and legal infrastructures necessary to make safety belt use a lifelong habit. (See Appendix A for statistics on the number of young people who were killed in 2004 in motor vehicle crashes in each State.)
Passenger vehicle occupant fatality and injury rates (per 100 million vehicle miles traveled [VMT]) have declined slightly during the past 10 years (see Chart 2 below).
Thousands of children and young adults continue to be killed and injured in motor vehicle crashes. A total of 6,994 young people from birth to age 20 were killed and approximately 663,206 were injured in passenger vehicle crashes in 2004. Despite widespread public education campaigns promoting the use of proper occupant restraints, nearly 52 percent of children 5 to 9 and 63 percent of children 10 to 15 who were killed in passenger vehicle crashes in 2004 were unrestrained. Charts 3 and 4 illustrate the toll that motor vehicle crashes take on our children and youth, particularly among those 16 to 20.
Research conducted by NHTSA on occupant protection use from 1995 to 2004 confirms there is a strong positive correlation between the restraint use of an adult driver and that of young children in the vehicle. Among fatally injured children from birth to 15, the research revealed the following:
Exhibit 1 illustrates the relationship between driver and child restraint use in crashes in which a child was fatally injured.
This strong association between parental and child restraint use speaks to the importance of maintaining ongoing programs and outreach for children, youth, and parents to encourage the use of occupant restraints. NHTSA’s 2003 Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Survey (MVOSS) further illustrates this need. In the 2003 MVOSS, researchers asked respondents their level of agreement with the statement, “I have a habit of wearing a seat belt because my parents insisted I wear them when I was a child.” Among people 16 to 24, 69 percent either strongly agreed or somewhat agreed with this statement.
Most of the people who die in motor vehicle crashes are vehicle occupants (less than one-fourth of fatalities caused by crashes involve pedestrians, pedalcyclists, and motorcyclists). Safety belts and child safety seats have been designed to protect drivers and passengers from death and injury during a crash. But these restraints cannot save lives if they are not used. See Appendix B– Passenger Vehicle Occupants Killed in Motor Vehicle Crashes, by State and Restraint Use, 2004.
Every State except New Hampshire has adult safety belt laws and all States have child restraint laws requiring drivers to restrain children in approved, age-appropriate child restraint devices or safety belts. In some States, though, these laws do not cover all occupants in all seating positions (rear seats).
In some States, laws concerning the use of child restraint devices cover children only up to age 4, and laws concerning the use of adult safety belts cover only front-seat occupants, leaving some children uncovered by any occupant protection law. For example, in some States, a 10-year-old can ride legally in the back seat without being secured because, at this age and in this seating position, the child is not covered by either the child restraint law or the general (front-seat-only) safety belt law. Appendix C contains information on State child restraint laws.
Although child restraint laws are “primary” laws (laws that allow law enforcement officers to stop vehicles and issue citations for unrestrained drivers or passengers), the safety belt laws in many States are “secondary” enforcement laws. This means that police officers cannot stop drivers for the sole purpose of enforcing the use of occupant restraints. Rather, police officers can write tickets for not using occupant restraints only if they stop vehicles for another driving infraction. See Exhibit 2 for a map of States with primary and secondary lawsthat were enacted at the time of this publication.
In 2004, 52 percent of 5- to 9-year-old passenger vehicle occupants who were killed in crashes were restrained. Persuading parents to place their children in any kind of occupant restraint would undoubtedly reduce the number of children killed or seriously injured. In addition, children who have outgrown child safety seats, but are too small to ride safely in adult belts, should be properly restrained in booster seats until they are at least 8 years old, unless they are 4 feet 9 inches tall. If placed in adult safety belts prematurely, children can suffer serious internal injuries, slip out of the safety belt, or be ejected from the vehicle during a crash.
Booster seat use substantially reduces the risk of injury for children age 4 to 8; however, most children in this age group are currently restrained by safety belts designed for adults. In the 2002 study by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, only 16 percent of 4-year-olds, 13 percent of 5-year-olds, and 4 percent of 6- and 7-year-olds were using booster seats.8
The CHOP study found that the use of belt-positioning booster seats lowers the risk of injury to children in crashes by 59 percent compared with the use of vehicle safety belts. The study also found that none of the 4- to 7-year-olds who were in belt-positioning booster seats had any injuries to the abdomen, neck, spine, or back. Yet, such injuries did occur in children who used safety belts alone.8
Children who are 4 feet 9 inches tall before their 8th birthday may be ready for adult belts. They can start using safety belts when they can place their backs firmly against the vehicle seat-back cushion with their knees bent over the vehicle seat cushion.
As this booklet is published, 38 States and the District of Columbia had enacted provisions in their child restraint laws requiring the use of a booster seat or other appropriate restraint device by children who have outgrown their forward-facing child safety seats, but who are still too small to use an adult safety belt system correctly. The following jurisdictions have enacted these lifesaving provisions: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. See Exhibit 2 for a map of States that mandate booster seats or appropriate restraint use by older passengers. A number of other States are considering legislation that would require similar upgrades for booster-seat-age child passengers. For up-to-date information on booster seats and State laws visit www.boosterseat.gov.
8 Durbin, D., Elliott, M., and Winston, F. Belt-Positioning Booster Seats and Reduction in Risk of Injury Among Children in Vehicle Crashes. Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 289 (21), 2835-2840, June 2003.