New study shows nearly half of car crash injuries and deaths of kids involved improper car seat, seat belt use

Child in a car seat.
Child in a car seat. (Getty Images)

The use of car seats to protect children on the road has been recommended by major pediatric organizations — and required by state laws — for decades. But disturbing new research from AAA and baby brand Chicco finds that some parents aren't using them.

Motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death for children in the U.S., with 607 children ages 12 or younger dying in automobile accidents in 2020; of those, 38% were not buckled up. More than 63,000 children were injured in car crashes that same year.

As the latest research finds, many pediatric injuries and deaths in car crashes could easily be prevented. Here's what parents need to know.

What the study says

The study from AAA and Chicco examined five years of crash data from the U.S. Department of Transportation and found a lack of proper child restraint use in many cases of children who were injured or killed in car crashes.

What are the key findings?

For the study, researchers analyzed car crash data in the U.S. from 2017 to 2021. The data found that more than 3.9 million children ages 10 and younger were involved in crashes while riding in a vehicle. Of those, 527,000 were injured and 2,789 died.

The researchers found that 48% of children 10 and under who were injured and 51% of those who were killed in car crashes either used a seat belt when they were too young or used no restraint instead of a car seat.

What experts think

While experts aren't shocked, they're not happy about the findings. "This is a snapshot of what we see very regularly, and is not at all surprising," Kelley Miller, injury prevention coordinator at Corewell Health's Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, tells Yahoo Life. "We often see children who have severe or fatal injuries due to not using a car seat or booster seat or not using a car seat or booster seat that is appropriate for their age, height, weight and developmental level."

Miller notes that parents are often "eager" to move to the next step of car seat safety. "However, when we advance kids from one stage to another too quickly, we are sacrificing their safety unnecessarily," she says.

Michelle Pratt, child passenger safety technician at Safe in the Seat, tells Yahoo Life that the latest findings are "alarming." She adds, "It highlights the substantial gap between the science and technical aspects of car seat safety and the level of education and awareness among parents and caregivers."

Worth noting: The Department of Transportation says child restraints can reduce fatalities by 71% for infants younger than a year and by 54% for children ages 1 to 4.

"Vehicles are mainly designed to keep adults safe, and car seats are the key piece of equipment that steps in to make sure our kids can ride safely too," Pratt says. "They provide essential protection for a child's fragile, underdeveloped body, significantly lowering the risk of injury in case of a car crash. This data clearly emphasizes the importance of using age- and developmentally appropriate car seats or boosters for our children, as neglecting to do so considerably increases their vulnerability to injuries or, tragically, even fatalities in car crashes."

The takeaway

Miller stresses the importance of ensuring that children are in the proper car seat or booster. "Data from the National Digital Car Seat Check Form shows that 90% of children who are using the regular lap and shoulder seat belt in the vehicle should still be in a forward-facing car seat or booster seat," she says. "Seat belts are made to keep fully grown adults safe, not children, so it’s important to make sure children are getting a correct fit before moving out of a booster seat."

Pratt says children are ready to move on to riding without a booster when they pass what's known as the "five-step test." That means they pass the following checklist:

  • They can sit upright with their butt all the way back in the seat.

  • Their knees bend at the end of the vehicle seat.

  • Their lap belt is routed on top of the thighs — not the stomach.

  • The shoulder belt fits between the end of the shoulder and neck, diagonally through the chest.

  • They are mature enough to maintain the correct seating posture for the entire ride.

"For most kids, this is between the ages of 10 to 12," Pratt says.

"Use a proper car seat or booster seat and don’t rush," Miller says. "Children are safest when they stay in the most protective restraint until they meet the maximum height or weight limits before moving to the next stage. The best seat is one that is correct for the child and used the correct way."