Unfortunately, child safety in vehicles truly is a black-and-white issue.
A study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine indicates that the failure to use recommended child safety restraints -- particularly among minorities (black, Hispanic, Asian and other non-white children) -- often is responsible for the death of children over age 3 in the U.S. Not using the proper restraints or any restraints at all also sends more than 140,000 kids to emergency rooms each year.
Black and Hispanic children were the least likely to use age-appropriate restraints or seat belts, the study shows. Only 12 percent of black and 24 percent of Hispanic children used a seat belt (if old enough to do so), compared with 55 percent of white children. Also, greater numbers of minority children prematurely switched to seat belts from car seats compared with white children. About 62 percent of black children ages 6 and 7 used seat belts too soon, compared with 49 percent of white children.
Why is there a safety gap?
“Many members of the African-American and Latino communities aren’t educated in the basics of child passenger safety,” says Craig Sjogerman, a child passenger safety technician at La Rabida Children's Hospital in Chicago. “Some hospitals serving low-income families may provide car seats but are afraid of liability issues, so they do not have hands-on installations of car seats with the parents.”
Sjogerman says low-income families also are less likely to attend birthing classes where car safety education frequently is covered.
“They visit physicians less often, and may not always feel comfortable going to police stations. And single parents are often working at several jobs and may not have the time to attend special safety classes,” he says.
Because of low income and lack of safety education, Sjogerman says, many minority kids ride in second-hand car seats.
“These seats come to families in bad shape -- without manuals and without essential parts that would help keep their kids safe," he says. “And they’re often put into older cars that aren’t equipped with tether anchors that help keep forward-facing seats safe.”
Safety suggestions for all children
Child safety seats reduce the risk of death in car crashes by 71 percent for infants and by 54 percent for toddlers ages 1 to 4, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
The most recent guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics suggest that kids under age 13 always should ride in the back seat of a car. Those 2 and under should sit in rear-facing seats. A forward-facing car seat with a five-strap harness should be used as long as possible until the child is the maximum weight and height suggested by the manufacturer. Then, a child should ride in a booster seat until reaching 4¾ feet tall.
Aside from use of age-appropriate child safety restraints, “the main problem we have is that too many kids ride in vehicles with no restraints at all,” says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “No matter… how old you are, seat belts can save lives.”
To ensure all child passengers ride safely in a car, Sjogerman offers these tips:
Focus on the harnesses. Straps for child seats should not be twisted or be threaded other than how the manufacturer recommends. The chest clips of the harness should be at the manufacturer’s recommended spot on the child, typically right between the armpits.
Zero in on the installation. All child safety seats and booster seats should be held down snuggly in the seat of the car. You shouldn't be able to move the child seat sideways or up and down more than 1 inch.
Find the perfect fit. Don’t rush into putting your child in a larger seat, and don't keep your kids in a seat that has exceeded the recommended height or weight limit.
Keep up to date. Unless the manufacturer indicates otherwise, Sjogerman says, a seat shouldn't be used if it's more than 6 years old. “Over time, exposure to ultra-violet rays and temperature changes degrades the plastic and other materials of the seats, making them unable to properly protect a child in a crash,” he says.
Not sure whether your child's car seat is up to snuff? Police stations and pediatric hospitals often can inspect or help install a car seat.