Child Passenger Safety – Kids, Cars and Crashes

Child Passenger Safety

In 1998, nearly 42,000 people were killed in traffic crashes and almost 3.2 million more were injured, at a cost of over $150 billion. Among those killed were 2,549 children age 0-14 years, 1,772 of whom were vehicle occupants. (The others were pedestrians or bicyclists.) Vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans age 1 – 34.

When children are properly restrained in a child safety seat, booster seat or safety belt, as appropriate for their age, their chance of being killed or seriously injured when in a car crash is greatly reduced. Strong safety belt and child occupant restraint laws – with no “gaps” that leave some children uncovered – are the most effective way to increase child passenger restraint use and reduce traffic deaths and injuries to children. A number of states are moving to close the loopholes in their occupant restraint laws so that children of all ages are protected.

Child Passenger Safety Facts

  • On average each day, seven children age 14 and under are killed, and 866 more are injured, in motor vehicle crashes. (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, 1999)
  • Fifty-one percent of the children under age 5 who died in traffic crashes in 1998 were unrestrained. (NHTSA, 1999)
  • Child safety seats reduce the risk of fatal injury by 71 percent for infants under one year and by 54 percent for toddlers age 1-4. (NHTSA, 1999)
  • From 1975 through 1998, an estimated 4,193 children’s lives were saved by safety belts and child restraint systems. (NHTSA, 1999)
  • Children who ride in the back seat suffer a third fewer fatalities than those in the front seat. (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, or IIHS, 1999)
  • Rear-facing child safety seats should NEVER be placed in the front seat of a vehicle with a passenger-side air bag. The best way to protect children age 12 and under from risks posed by air bags is to place them in the back seat, properly restrained by the appropriate child safety seat or safety belt.
  • Adult safety belt use is the best predictor of child occupant restraint use. A driver who is buckled up is three times more likely to restrain a child passenger than one who is not buckled. (American Academy of Pediatrics, 1998)


  • All states and the District of Columbia have child safety seat laws with standard enforcement, allowing law enforcement officers to issue a citation when they see a violation of that law. However, many states have gaps in their child passenger restraint laws that leave children of some ages or in certain seating positions uncovered by either a child safety seat law or a safety belt law.
  • Only 24 states and the District of Columbia have no gaps in their child occupant protection laws, requiring all children through age 16 to be restrained in every seating position. (IIHS, 1999)
  • If states closed all remaining gaps in their child occupant protection laws, and all children (age 0-15) were properly restrained 100 percent of the time, as many as 630 additional children’s lives would be saved and another 182,000 serious injuries prevented every year. (Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign, 1999)
  • Strong safety belt laws protect children too. When Louisiana upgraded its safety belt law from secondary to standard enforcement, child restraint use jumped from 45 to 82 percent even though there was no change in the state’s child passenger safety law. (NHTSA, 1999)

Kids, Cars and Crashes

Sponsored by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, the “Kids, Cars and Crashes” Campaign is a grassroots initiative to pass highway safety laws that protect youth in all states. Highway crashes are the number one cause of death among the nation’s youth. According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 1997 alone, 5,992 children under the age of 21 were killed on our highways.

As part of the campaign, highway safety advocates across the country will work with state legislators and other public and private sector policy makers to promote three key laws that protect youth: teenage graduated licensing laws, child passenger restraint laws, and primary enforcement safety belt laws. They will seek strict enforcement of these laws, as well as more aggressive enforcement of the 21 minimum drinking age laws in each state.

Graduated licensing laws require young drivers to “graduate” through phases of restricted driving before they are allowed to get their unrestricted licenses. Such restrictions include a mandatory supervised driving period, night driving curfews, limits on teen passengers riding with a beginning driver, and a lower BAC level for teens than for adults. While many states have some element of a graduated licensing system, few states have all the essential elements.

Child passenger restraint laws require children to be properly secured in child restraint seats or properly buckled in safety belts. Ideally, all infants and children should be covered by safety belt or child restraint laws, or both. However, differences in the way state laws are worded result in many children not being covered by either law, or covered by laws that don’t make an adult responsible for compliance. Only 21 states and the District of Columbia have no gaps in their child passenger restraint laws.

As part of Advocate’s campaign, we encourage states to support the Air Bag and Safety Belt Safety Campaign that promotes air bag and child passenger safety by urging all parents to buckle up, and to always properly restrain their children in the back seat.

Primary enforcement safety belt laws give a law enforcement officer the authority to pull over and fine motorists for not wearing their safety belts. Currently, only 14 states and the District of Columbia have primary enforcement laws. The remaining states have secondary seat belt enforcement laws which require a law enforcement officer to stop a vehicle first for another offense before being able to write a ticket for a belt violation.

The campaign also will urge the federal government to more aggressively regulate auto safety, especially sport utility vehicles — a popular vehicle with our youngest, least experienced drivers. Sport utility vehicles have a greater tendency to roll over in crashes and rollover is a major cause of fatal highway crashes.

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