The nine-year push to get kids 12 and under to sit in the back seats of cars has cut the age group’s death toll in auto accidents nearly 20%, a new analysis of federal fatality data shows. In 1996, after air bags killed dozens of children, federal auto safety officials recommended that all children younger than 13 be seated in back to keep them out of reach of deploying air bags.
Safety experts said then, as they do now, that the back seat is far safer for kids whether or not vehicles have passenger air bags or the bags deploy.
The study, the most comprehensive analysis of why fewer kids are dying in crashes, will be published in the next issue of the Journal of Safety Research. It shows the number of children under 13 killed in car crashes fell 18% overall, from 1,346 in 1995 to 1,110 in 2003, the most recent data available. The most dramatic drop-off during that period came in the front seat, where the number of kids killed fell 46%, from 586 to 314.
The auto and insurance industry-funded Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign conducted the study.
Mark Rosenker, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, calls the shift to keep young kids out of the front seat “one of the most remarkably successful changes in societal behavior in recent decades, rivaling changes in attitudes toward smoking and drunk driving.”
Yet lately some safety experts have been worried that the advanced air bags now being phased into new models could cause parents to think it’s OK to let kids sit up front again.
“This study is indeed good news,” says National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Jeffrey Runge. “But we must never let our guard down, especially in educating new parents.”
Some new air bags can sense size, weight and position of people seated in front of them. But the technology is evolving, and the bags are not infallible.
In the front seat, children are closer to the point of impact in frontal crashes, which are the most common. That makes them more likely to come in contact with the windshield or dashboard — whether or not an air bag deploys. In the back seat, children are more likely to hit the back of the front seat.
“That’s not great, but it’s better than hitting jagged metal that’s coming in from the front,” says Kristy Arbogast, a biomechanical engineer at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who investigates crashes involving children.
In 1997, the NTSB said anyone under 13 should be required to sit in the back seat.
In one accident that Arbogast investigated, a 5-year-old boy in the front seat sustained serious injuries in a minor crash that only bruised the driver and left a 10-year-old in the back seat uninjured. The air bag caused traumatic brain injury and thrust the child into the door, causing skull fractures, Arbogast says.
“Old air bag, new air bag, no air bag — children are safer in back,” says Phil Haseltine, the Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign’s executive director.