With more than 35,000 people dying in car crashes last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, parents need to think seriously about car seat safety. While anything that keeps their children safe may seem worth it, one study found that car seat laws for older kids have limited effect.
Over the last four decades, car seat laws have steadily increased in regard to children’s ages. In the 1980s and 1990s, safety seat laws were the norm for kids up to age 2 or, at most, 3. By 2012, the average upper age requirement was 6.
“Parents are highly responsive to child safety seat legislation,” said Lauren Jones, lead researcher on the study — published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management — and assistant professor of consumer sciences at Ohio State University. “These laws can be very appealing for legislators to pass, but our research calls into question their value.”
The problem is that the parents who consistently buckle up their children are the same ones who comply with changing safety seat laws.
“Our study suggests that safety-conscious parents are likely to do what makes their child the safest, but these laws don’t have much effect on other parents,” Jones said.
Higher fines, which reached as much as $500 in some states in 2016, didn’t appear to make much difference in raising the likelihood that parents and other drivers complied with the laws, the study found.
Stricter laws don’t equal compliance
About 17 percent of children 7 and younger were in car safety seats before new laws expanded age requirements. That percentage jumped from 27 percent to almost 50 after stricter laws took effect, researchers found.
But the percentage of unrestrained children — those with neither a seatbelt on nor strapped into a car seat — barely moved.
“More-strict child safety seat laws have saved some children from dying in crashes, but perhaps not as many as parents would guess,” Jones said. A best-case estimate showed that between one and 39 children may have survived annually because of safety seats.
“Parents should also be aware that while our results indicate that increasingly strict child safety seat laws are not highly effective in decreasing fatalities, due to data limitations we could not test whether the laws are effective in reducing less-severe injuries: The seats may still be effective for reducing minor injuries,” Jones said.
Importantly, this study did not examine injuries or severity of injuries before and after passage of stricter laws. It’s possible that children’s injuries have declined because of more widespread use of safety seats, Jones said.
The study “does confirm that there are still drivers who do not use a safety seat or a seatbelt, and that their child passengers are much more likely to die in an accident,” Jones said.
Because the study used real-world data, “our results include any adverse impacts of the laws due to the fact that many car seats are still improperly installed. Be sure that your child seat is properly installed; otherwise, a seat belt may be preferable,” Jones said.
Car seat laws are not cost-free. The research estimates the net annual cost of safety seat laws at $377 million.
Since safety seat laws do little to increase the number of children riding in vehicles unrestrained, “policy-makers should consider information campaigns that target parents to inform them of appropriate safety measures,” Jones said.
Younger parents, as well as parents with older cars, are more likely to the break the law.
“This suggests to me that delivery of free car seats to young or low-income parents could be another effective policy tool,” Jones said.
Drivers 45 and older with child passengers under 8 are also more likely to break the law.
“This suggests to me that these may be drivers who are not the parent — grandparents, perhaps — who may not have a child seat on hand. Again, informational campaigns may be useful in targeting this problem,” Jones said.