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The “Forgotten Child” ? Ages 4 to 8 ? at Risk of Death, Serious Injury in Crashes Because of “Safety Gap”

April 23, 2002

The “Forgotten Child” ? Ages 4 to 8 ? at Risk of Death, Serious Injury in Crashes Because of “Safety Gap”

Safety Advocates Urge Swift Government Action, Including Mandatory, Built-In Child Safety Systems

WASHINGTON, D.C. ? Children between the ages of 4 and 8 face an unconscionably high risk of death, paralysis or other serious injury in automobile crashes because they are either unrestrained or they are strapped into adult safety belts that are not designed to fit them, according to a study released at a press conference today by Public Citizen.

Public Citizen, joined by other safety advocates, called on Congress, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the automobile industry to take immediate steps ? including the mandatory installation of integrated child and booster seat restraints with five-point harnesses ? to close the safety gap that leaves these small children unprotected.

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of unintentional, injury-related death in the United States for children ages 4 to 14. During the 1990s, more than 90,000 children were killed and 9 million injured. Yet many children who are too large for child seats and too small for adult belts are strapped into adult belts or are unrestrained. A small percentage use booster seats that can slide or tip in a collision; are often installed incorrectly or simply incompatible with the family vehicle; are not regulated for children over 50 pounds; and are not crash-tested in vehicles, even though compatibility is a crucial issue for safety.

The report ? The Forgotten Child: The Failure of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers to Protect 4- to 8-Year-Olds in Crashes ? notes that in one recent year (1999) 13 percent of the children who died in vehicle crashes were wearing adult seat belts. “In crashes, both children in booster seats and children in adult belts are at risk from the poor fit of belts, from the flimsy or non-existent safety design of vehicle and booster seats, and from the complexity of fit created by mis-matches between aftermarket seats and particular vehicles,” the report says.

“The automobile manufacturers have known for many years that booster seats held in place by adult belts do not provide the margin of safety that our children deserve,” said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook, who headed NHTSA from 1977 to 1981. “Cars have never been designed for children. It?s time to put the safety of children first. We need a strong government standard to replace the weak, antiquated add-on seats that largely relieve automakers of any responsibility for designing vehicles that are safe for children.”

Claybrook was joined at the press conference by Jamaal Walker, 12, of Riviera Beach, Fla., who was rendered a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic in a 1996 crash; Walker?s mother, Palmella Rainford; attorneys C. Tab Turner and Susan Lister, who handled Walker?s lawsuit; Kathy Lakey of Boca Raton, Fla., the jury foreman in the Walker case; and Autumn Skeen of Washington state, who has crusaded for child safety after her 4-year-old son Anton died in a rollover crash in 1996.

“What we need is a solution that works for children of Jamaal?s age and size,” Rainford said. “Cars should have built-in restraint systems so that when a crash happens, children are given at least as much of a chance to survive as adults get. Our children are too precious to give them anything but the strongest safety measures we can.”

Lakey said she was disturbed by evidence at the trial of the Jamaal Walker lawsuit that Ford knew for years that there was a safety problem and that federal regulations were too weak to prevent Jamaal?s injury. “When the trial ended, I couldn?t be silent,” Lakey said. “I am here today because I believe something must be done. Any car manufacturer should be held accountable for negligence.”

The current federal safety standard for child restraints was put in place in the early 1970s. It applies only to children who weigh less than 50 pounds, meaning that booster seats for larger children are completely unregulated and not required to meet safety tests. It is based on adult injury criteria never designed for children, and only frontal, not all, crash modes.

Due to conflicting and complex messages put out by the auto industry and NHTSA, parents too often don?t know how to protect their child, the report says. Although it is dangerous to place a children under age 9 in an adult safety belt, 29 states require parents to place children in either a safety seat or an adult belt when a child reaches age 4.

“The industry has not warned parents of the illusion of safety with adult belts into which parents are conscientiously buckling their precious children,” Skeen said.

Child restraint devices that address the “safety gap” were pioneered by researchers outside of the auto industry as far back as 1974. But instead of designing effective safety belts or child seats integrated into rear seats to accommodate children in the 4 to 8 age group, auto companies promoted aftermarket booster seats as the gap filler, despite their knowledge that the seats could be hazardous in collisions.

“This is another example of the auto industry ducking responsibility instead of doing the right thing,” Turner said. “The Forgotten Child is more appropriately labeled the ?Forsaken Child,? because the indsutry knows the problem but for cost and liability reasons has not designed cars to protect kids. Kids are our most precious assets. The Congress must demand cars be redesigned for children.”

The safety advocates urged the following actions:

  • The mandatory installation of integrated child and booster seat restraints with five-point harnesses in all domestically sold vehicles;
  • Stronger federal equipment standards, including: a) dynamic test standards for all child booster seats, covering the range of crashes for children up to 80 pounds; b) testing by automakers for compatibility of child restraints and booster seats in all makes and models of vehicles; and c) application of child ? not adult ? injury criteria for all forms of child safety seats in all types of crashes;
  • Mandatory performance requirements for rear seat occupant restraints to safely accommodate small children, including the inclusion of adjustable shoulder harnesses; and,
  • Mandatory performance requirements for the installation of three-point restraints in all front and rear middle seating positions.

Click here to view a copy of the report.

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To read statements by additional participants in the press conference, click here.