Child safety experts have always emphasized the vulnerability of young children in the event of a crash. Parents are continually schooled in the media about the proper use of car seats and booster seats. The federal government even established guidelines for parents of young children; recommending that parents place infants up to 20 pounds in a rear-facing child seat and toddlers weighing between 20 to 40 pounds in a child seat with a harness. Children weighing more than 40 pounds who aren’t at least 4 feet 9 inches tall should be in a booster seat.
However, when a child grew beyond 4 feet 9 inches tall, usually around the time they reached eight years old, there was no parental guidance from the government in place to protect them in the event of a crash. No longer considered as having the same level of vulnerability as they once did, children between the ages of 8 and 12 years old seemed to get lost in the cracks when it came to auto safety practices. The only recommendation the government made was to have them ride in the back seat until they reach the age of 13.
Experience proved that wasn’t enough. More than one pre-teen, or “tween,” passenger between the ages of 8 and 12 is killed in a motor vehicle crash every day and three times that number are injured, according to the Fatality Analysis Reporting System. In light of these statistics, it is no wonder that safety organizations like the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety are asking questions about how frequently tweens are wearing their seat belts and whether or not they’re sitting in the back seat. National fatality data demonstrate that of the more than 400 tweens killed in crashes each year, approximately half are not wearing a seat belt and one-third are riding in the front seat.
To verify these statistics, the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety conducted surveys in Dallas, Texas and Joplin, Missouri. Researchers discovered that of the children polled, about one-third said they sat in the front seat. Even more significant was the fact that half of the 12-year-olds surveyed said that they sat in the front seat. About 63% of the Joplin tweens questioned said they always wore their seat belts, with 53% of the Dallas children stating the same. Surveys were completed by more than 400 children in both cities and had a margin of error of 5 percentage points.
The most alarming discovery that came out of this project was that belt usage in these two locations fell far below the national use rate of 82%. It was also successful in highlighting the problem of why tweens had such a significant death rate as a result of car crashes.
Despite so much bad news, the survey showed how easily parents could improve these results. The Joplin survey revealed a strong parental influence when it came to wearing a seat belt. Nine out of ten children whose parents always wear seat belts followed the example their parents set; however, only six out of ten children whose parents wear seat belts sporadically always wear their belts.
That’s why both the federal government and the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety recommend that parents serve as role models and always wear their seat belts. They also recommend using incentives like letting children choose the radio station in exchange for sitting in the back seat and wearing their seat belts. Parents should ban the use of handheld electronic games in the car if children insist upon sitting in the front. Parents also need to remind children that the law requires they wear a seat belt.