What Every Parent Should Know About Auto Safety

To most of us, our children are the most precious things in the world. In this age of high speed, high pressure and high tech, our families provide a welcome respite -- an escape to simpler times when the world was home-centered, not business-centered. Like a mother bear protecting her cubs, we have become fanatic about sheltering our children from harm. And, for all the benefits motor vehicles have brought us in terms of mobility and freedom, they have also exacted a price with respect to our children.

Though no one can minimize the beneficial effects automobiles have had on our society, they do represent a significant public health risk. In fact, the single largest cause of death among children 5-12 years old and teenagers aged 15-20 is motor vehicle accidents.

The danger to our children is two-fold. First, significant numbers of children under 12 are killed or injured in vehicle collisions, very frequently because they were not properly restrained in child-safety seats and/or safety belts by their parents. And second, when our children become old enough to drive vehicles themselves, they sometimes end up doing a very poor job of it and kill themselves and others.

According to the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, an insurance industry lobbying and research group, children 12 years and younger represented 20 percent of the U.S. population in 1997 and five percent of motor vehicle deaths. While those statistics are mildly reassuring, one has to note that not one of those victims was driving the vehicle. Instead, they were all innocent victims.

Further, the story for teenagers is even scarier. Again according to IIHS, teenagers accounted for 10 percent of the U.S. population in 1997 and 15 percent of motor vehicle deaths. The statistics are grim: in 1997, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available, teenagers represented 12 percent of passenger vehicle occupant deaths in 1997, seven percent of pedestrian deaths, seven percent of motorcycle deaths, and 18 percent of bicycle deaths.

The raw numbers are sobering. Some 2,098 children under the age of 13 and 5,697 teenagers died in motor vehicle crashes in 1997.

While there is positive news -- child pedestrian and bicycle deaths have declined 67 percent since 1975 - the sad fact is that passenger vehicle occupant deaths among children were only four percent lower in 1997 than in 1975. This despite the fact that experts agree today's cars and trucks are significantly safer than those of 25 years ago. Despite declines in some of the death rates, motor vehicle crashes still cause about one of every three injury deaths among children 12 and younger.

For teenagers the risks are different, but the statistical picture isn't pretty either. Teenagers drive less than all but the oldest people, but their numbers of crashes and crash deaths are disproportionately high. In fact, the risk of crash involvement per mile driven among drivers 16-19 years old is four times the risk among older drivers.



What to Do

Because there are two separate problems in the child safety issue, there are two separate solutions as well. In neither case does the fault lie with today's vehicles. Instead, the solutions must come from changes in driver and passenger behavior.

For children under the age of 13, the solution is very clear - the percentage of children who currently are properly restrained in proper child-safety seats most go up from its current 60 percent to 100 percent. In addition, children too old and/or too large to ride in child safety seats must wear their seat belts correctly and sit in the rear seat. Amazingly, sitting in the rear instead of the front reduces fatal injury risk among children 12 and younger by 36 percent. (A future feature in Driving Today will discuss exactly how children should be properly restrained.)

As to preventing vehicle deaths among teenagers, the solution revolves around drivers' education. The IIHS believes teenage crash rates are high "largely because of young drivers' immaturity combined with driving inexperience." It is difficult to legislate away immaturity, but a true driver's training program that will school youth in the proper ways to use the significant active and passive safety systems of today's automobiles will go a long way toward making the roads safer for our teenagers. All too often drivers' education has been eliminated from the high school classroom. And in those schools where the course is still offered, it is rarely more than a glorified lesson in street sign memorization and parallel parking. Teaching car control is extremely rare. Yet crashes involving young drivers typically are single-vehicle crashes, primarily run-off-the-road crashes, that involve driver error and/or speeding. These are exactly the types of accidents that can be prevented by drivers skilled in keeping their cars under control.

Our children - whether they are babes in arms or teenagers off at college - are our most precious resource, our guarantee of the future. Certainly they deserve our help in reaching adulthood. Did you make sure your kid was properly buckled in today?
by Jack Nerad