Kids, Cars and Crashes: Real Risks

Editor's Note: Parents today are more aware than ever of all the dangers that could befall their children. While the most sensational of those threats claim their attention, the greatest risks lie in the routine activities of daily life. Our "Real Risks" briefs will help you focus on the ways in which kids are most likely to come into harm and what you can do to keep them safe.

Most parents know the risks involved with motor vehicles. We know that everyone should be buckled up and that simply having kids with us is reason enough to take more care on the roads.

Some serious statistics back this up. Motor vehicle injuries are the No. 1 cause of death for U.S. children. In 2004 alone, 1,638 kids ages 14 and under died as passengers in motor vehicle accidents; while another 214,000 were injured, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

But here's the kicker: Half of the kids who died in motor vehicle crashes that year were not wearing seat belts.

What's Your Excuse?

Nearly one in five Americans don't regularly wear safety belts when driving or riding, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). Most are young males, pickup truck drivers and their passengers, people driving at night and people living in rural areas, the NHTSA reports. The administration uses those statistics to push its "Click It or Ticket" campaign to convince states and communities nationwide to adopt safety belt laws.

Safety groups cite several reasons that adults often give for not wearing seat belts themselves: "It takes too much time; it's a hassle," "I always forget" or "I'm only going a short distance; I don't need to buckle up."

But those excuses hardly justify the danger people put themselves in by not buckling up. And adults who don't wear seat belts often put more than themselves at risk. The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control reports that nearly 40 percent of young kids riding with an unbelted driver are also unbelted or unrestrained.

The Wrong Restraint

Beyond agreeing to buckle up, when it comes to safely restraining kids in cars, many of us do it incorrectly. The NHTSA monitored the use of child restraint systems (safety seats and booster seats) in more than 4,000 vehicles over a four-month period in 2002 and found that in more than 72 percent of those vehicles, the restraints were misused. The most common problems: either the safety belts attached to the restraint system or the system's harnesses themselves were too loose.

And then there's the problem of moving kids from a child safety seat to an adult safety belt too soon. Earlier this year, Safe Kids Worldwide began promoting a new Safety Belt Fit Test to guide parents and other caregivers on when to move their children to adult safety belts. The organization says this usually should happen when a child reaches 4'9" in height and weighs 80 to 100 pounds (usually sometime between ages 8 and 12).

Infants and toddlers are using safety restraints more than 90 percent of the time, while kids ages 4 to 7 are in the correct safety restraints only 73 percent of the time, reports the NHTSA. Booster seats, the organization says, are perfect for kids under 57 inches tall and under 80 pounds because they position the adult safety belt correctly around the child.

Need current information on safety seats and the proper fit for your child? Visit, (search under "Safety Belt Fit Test") or the American Academy of Pediatrics at for specific, easy-to- understand guidelines.