Industry and the Federal Government Ignore Safety Needs of Older Children; a Disturbing Legacy for the “Forgotten Child”
NHTSA’s recent proposed rulemaking to improve the Ease-of-Use rating system was more notable for what it omitted. The agency said that it would not widen the scope of the program to include built-in child safety seats – which require no special knowledge to use and provide a much better fit for children who are too small for adult seat belts, but too large for most child safety seats. But the decision is consistent with a long history of failure among auto and policy makers to address the specific safety needs of these children, despite the knowledge that children’s developing bodies are substantially different from a mature physique and require appropriate restraints.
The automotive and safety community rightly dubs this population: “the Forgotten Child.” Generally, these children are between 4 and 8 years old, and weigh more than 50 pounds. This age group has been “forgotten” for nearly 40 years. Until very recently, children of this age group were absent from federal motor vehicle safety standards. Many child seat manufacturers did not make products geared for older, heavier children not yet large enough to fit an adult seat belt properly. The legacy of this indifference is that children of this age group are frequently graduated prematurely to seat belts, leaving them vulnerable to serious injuries and death – even in low-speed crashes from which more appropriately restrained occupants emerge unharmed.
Booster seats have been available in the U.S. since1979. But today, boosters are still widely underused by parents and caregivers of the children who might benefit from them the most – 4-8 year-olds. Recent statistics estimate that only 20-38 percent of children who are between child safety seats and adult seat belts are riding in boosters. Why? For one, the message to parents about which children should ride in booster seats has been incoherent and inconsistent. Secondly, despite various campaigns by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and vehicle manufacturers, neither has actually done much to effect booster seat use.
NHTSA was slow to require manufacturers to install rear-seat three-point belts – without which boosters are useless. The agency still does not require dynamic testing of boosters designed for older, heavier children. And from the earliest efforts to establish a child safety seat standard, the agency has largely given automakers a pass – there are no regulations to require vehicle manufacturers to build child safety into their designs.
Manufacturers have been remiss in building rear-seat safety into their vehicles in the U.S. Until regulations required them to do so, lap-only belts were installed in the rear seats of most vehicles. Many vehicles still on the road today have lap-only belts in the middle rear-seat position – the position recommended as the safest for children. Some automakers’ own testing has shown the efficacy of integrated child seats over after-market restraints, but few have actually installed them. Instead, major manufacturers such as Ford and GM have spent millions promoting the use of aftermarket boosters, after initially offering their own branded child safety seats that were specifically designed to fit their vehicles. This contrasts to their approach in Europe and Australia, where regulations are more stringent. As far as back as 1978, Volvo, for example offered belt-positioning boosters.
The results of this inaction are found in the motor vehicle fatality rates for the Forgotten Child. While motor vehicle deaths among other age groups have decreased, According to NHTSA estimates that between 1982 and 1998, there was a 23% increase in motor vehicle deaths among 5- to 9-year-olds. The occupant fatality rate per 100,000 population for children between the ages of 0 to 4 has decreased significantly over the past couple decades, from 4.68 in 1977 to 2.84 in 2000. The fatality rate for children between the ages of 5 and 9 has stayed roughly the same in the past 25 years, and in 2000 was actually higher than it was in 1982.