Making cars safe for kids

Disclaimer: I did not write this article. It is my opinion that this information is too important to keep from the public. Stuart Ollanik is performing a great service for Parents and Children by writing this article:

Making cars safe for kids

Stuart Ollanik

People take safety precautions for their children, but auto manufacturers must follow suit and make safety changes. Regulations and laws should ensure that they do. It’s time for a national child auto-safety initiative.

When it comes to auto safety, children take a back seat. Our society claims to value its children above all else but fails to protect them from an epidemic of automobile-related deaths and injuries.

Automakers also claim that they value our children above all else. One major American auto company’s Web site proclaimed: “Child safety comes first.”1 But lawsuits brought by injured consumers across the country reveal another story. Children have not come first, or even second or third. When it comes to auto safety, children have been an afterthought.

The neglect of child safety in automotive design is a national disgrace. It is time to change that and promote a national child auto-safety initiative.

The consumer behavior side of the child safety coin has landed heads up. Seat belt use rates have increased substantially in the past two decades.2 Laws requiring belt use have been effective, and laws requiring child seats—and, more recently, booster seats for children who have outgrown their child seats—promise to reduce child injuries and fatalities as compliance increases.3

Older children are wearing seat belts more often. Graduated driver’s license requirements that restrict night driving for young, new drivers have been reversing the trend of deaths and injuries caused by teen drivers.4

But the equipment side of the coin is not so shiny. Information coming to light in lawsuits on behalf of children injured and killed in auto accidents show that car manufacturers make child safety their last priority.

For example,

  • By 1974, the driver and front passenger seats in every new car were required to have lap and shoulder belts or passive restraints that provided similar protections, but children rode in back with lap-only belts. It wasn’t until 1990 that cars were required to have lap-shoulder belts in the left and right rear seats. Middle seat lap-only belts were still tolerated until the 2008 model year.5

  • By 1998, all new cars were required to have air bags for both front seats.6 But auto safety researchers knew that full-powered air bags could pose a danger to children. Many children were injured or killed before parents were advised to put children in the back seat and new regulations required lower- or variable-powered air bags for light-weight passengers in front seats.7

  • In the mid-1990s, many seat belts were equipped with adjustable upper anchors on front seats to help adults get a better shoulder-belt fit. But few cars have these in the back, where children sit and greater adjustability for smaller passengers is needed.

  • Until the last few years, up to 90 percent of child seats were installed incorrectly.8 Parents were sometimes blamed for this, but even certified child-restraint specialists cannot properly install some child seats in some cars. There are issues of compatibility, complexity, and poor instructions. This problem had been solved in Europe by requiring standard mounting hardware for tethering child seats at the bottom and the top. But top tethers for child seats were not common in the United States until 2001, when regulations were changed to effectively require them, many years after they were standard equipment in Canada.9

Auto safety has advanced over the decades—lap belts were introduced in the 1960s, shoulder belts in the 1970s, antilock brakes in the 1980s, air bags in the 1990s, and electronic stability control in the 2000s. Hundreds of other safety innovations have come along the way, including efforts to provide child safety.

However, a broad divide between state of the art and state of the industry exists, and the record shows that child safety has been neglected. Change is needed in several areas.

Seat belts and seats
The most important area for change involves the most important safety component in the car: the seat belts. In 1990, one automaker appointed a committee to investigate how to best protect children in rear seats in frontal collisions, the most common type of crash. The committee issued two recommendations: Make seat belts fit, and make them perform well. These recommendations were not adopted then or even after subsequent committees reached the same conclusions.10

The need for good fit and performance was obvious. Experience with early shoulder belts in the 1960s showed that they do not fit even older children correctly unless they are designed with adjustable upper anchors to ensure good fit for passengers of many different sizes.

The consequences of poor fit are serious. Uncomfortable belts will not be worn. Nor will belts that fit in a way that appears dangerous. Some automakers advised parents that if the shoulder belt cut across a child’s neck, it should be placed behind the back. The federal government also gave this warning.11 Safety experts now agree that shoulder belts should never be placed behind the back, but the practice persists, and some medical providers and public safety materials continued to repeat the outdated recommendation for years.12

Besides discouraging use and facilitating improper use, ill-fitting belts do not protect children properly. Belt effectiveness depends on the belt remaining on the hard bones of the body—the pelvis (hip bone) and shoulder bones—to transfer accident forces there and avoid vulnerable body parts like the head and abdomen. When a child is swimming in an oversized belt, it is too likely that in a crash the belt will not stay where it belongs.

Even when worn as intended, poor-fitting belts create two specific injury risks. “Rollout” can occur when children lean away from a shoulder belt that fits too close to their necks, or when the seat belt buckle is on a strap or stalk too long for child occupants so that the shoulder belt does not wrap all the way around the child’s torso. In such situations, a child can “roll out” of the shoulder belt—his or her torso rotates around the taut belt, which comes off the shoulder.

Rollout can result in severe organ damage as the belt slides down to the abdomen. It can also cause the child’s body to bend where it was never meant to bend, causing spinal injury and paralysis.

“Submarining” occurs when poor belt fit allows a child, whose pelvis is less developed than an adult’s, to slide under the lap belt. It can also cause disabling or fatal internal injuries or paralysis.

Rollout and submarining injuries are common and have been the subject of many lawsuits. Auto industry studies and other internal documents uncovered in litigation recognize these risks, but manufacturers still do not properly protect children against them.

The auto industry has known about the following solutions for well over a decade, but has failed to adopt them:

  • adjustable upper anchors that can be moved down for children

  • upper shoulder belts anchored to the “package tray” behind the back seat in a sedan, rather than higher up on the roof pillar

  • anchors at the seat cushion placed close together to provide a more snug fit

  • buckles mounted flush to the seat (buckles that are placed further along the belt webbing are fine for adults, but when children wear these, the lap-shoulder belt junction is too high on the child’s lap, encouraging both rollout and submarining)

  • anti-submarining seat pans, that help keep the occupants’ buttocks from sliding forward.

These design alternatives make restraints safer for children sitting in car seats and in booster seats, and some cost almost nothing. The most expensive option costs about $4 per seat belt.

Engineers have tested, modeled, and recommended fixes for poor belt performance for children for over a decade. Two of these—pretensioners and web clamps—either tighten the belt or prevent spooling in accidents. A third option is to simply produce belts with less webbing.

Pretensioners usually are found on belts in the front seats, where adults typically sit. They cost about $7 each, according to documents uncovered in discovery—about the price of two McDonald’s Happy Meals.

Web clamps secure the belt immediately in an accident. They cost about $2.

Less webbing on the spool means less can pay out in a crash. Federal law requires that belts have enough webbing to fit 95 percent of the men in America, according to official sizing charts.13 That means that the largest men and women—under 3 percent of the population—would need to use a seat belt extender. Rather than inconvenience that 3 percent, some automakers add extra webbing, which increases children’s risk. Using no more webbing in the rear seat than the law requires is a no-cost improvement.

Quick belt engagement allows the passenger to take advantage of the crumple zone in the front of the vehicle—the part designed to buckle and fold in an impact, absorbing crash force rather than transmitting it to occupants. The crumple zone is one factor that helps “ride down” the crash impact for occupants—that is, increasing the duration of the crash, which reduces acceleration. When a child’s seat belt does not engage until a third or a half of the crumple zone is crushed, the child loses much of the ride-down and has an impact with greater force.

Those three design alternatives also protect children who are in booster seats. No booster seat will provide good protection if the belt does not work well.

When belt systems didn’t include pretensioners or web clamps, testing and modeling uncovered in litigation showed that forces on child-size dummies were sometimes greater with booster seats than without them. The research also showed that pretensioners reduce forces on child-size dummies with booster seats and without them.14

Integrated child seats are a wonderful solution to both fit and performance problems. These child-restraint or booster seats are built into the vehicle, eliminating the problem of improper compatibility or installation. They hold the child snug and fit properly, providing optimal child protection. Unfortunately, they are available in very few vehicles and have not been widely promoted or stocked when offered as an option.

While every child should use a child-restraint seat, then a booster seat when he or she outgrows it, this is an incomplete solution to the problem of restraining children. The design alternatives discussed here should be implemented to better protect children of all ages.

Because of the danger of air bags, nearly all children now sit in the rear seats. However, that placement also poses a serious danger that could be prevented with proper design. In a frontal collision, cargo from the trunk can collapse the rear seatback forward, injuring or killing a child seated there. Even loads under 100 pounds can push into the occupant compartment in an accident, endangering children in the back seats, including those in child seats. Standards for retention of cargo have been proposed but are not widely used by U.S. automakers, although they appear in some of their European and Australian vehicles.

In moderate-speed rear-end collisions, the front seatbacks of many vehicles on the road will collapse rearward, often with tragic results. A collapsing seatback poses risks for the front-seat occupant, as well as serious risk for infants in rear-facing car seats because their heads will be directly in the zone of the collapsing front seatback. Stronger seatback designs are available that can minimize this risk.

Crash testing

For decades, the federal government has required crash tests in which force levels on test dummies are required to be below federally established limits believed to correspond with severe injury thresholds. However, these requirements do not include the use of child-size dummies, and no crash dummy testing is required for the back seat, where all children are supposed to sit.

Discovery in one case revealed that a major U.S. automaker had conducted about 200 crash tests while developing one of the best-selling sedans of all time, the Ford Taurus. None of those tests included child-size dummies.15

Automakers say they do not have good data on safe injury levels for children and that this justifies the lack of crash testing. Where is the data, and when do they propose to conduct the research? We need to ask why the science for children and the requirements for ensuring their safety have lagged by decades behind that for adults.

Automakers do conduct sled tests with child dummies, but these are sorely inadequate. In a sled test, a car body is placed on a test platform and rapidly accelerated backward on a short track, simulating a collision. But a sled does not move like a real car in a real accident. It cannot roll, pitch, or yaw. It just moves backward. Sleds also include only some parts of the car.

In investigating one accident, it was discovered that the floor of the car bent upward and forward in a frontal collision at the point where the seat belt was bolted down and loaded with just the weight of a young child. In two real-life collisions, children belted into rear seats were paralyzed in frontal collisions no more severe than a crash test or sled test would measure. In the sled test for that vehicle, the seat belt was bolted to the rigid sled; the manufacturer never tested the vehicle to determine what would happen if a belt anchor was deformed by the crash.

Nontraffic accidents

Vehicles can pose grave dangers to children even when not on the roadway. The advocacy group Kids and Cars reports that since 2001, more than 1,400 children have been killed in nontraffic automobile accidents, including 232 in 2007.16 “The real tragedy is that all of these deaths could have been prevented with existing technology,” said the group’s founder, Janette Fennell.

The following features can be modified for child safety.

Automatic windows. Children have been strangled in automatic windows. One reliable solution is a sensing device that stops the window when it encounters resistance—a technology we have had for automatic garage doors for decades. At the very least, window switches should be designed to make it difficult to accidentally close the window; for example, recessed switches need to be pulled up to raise the window. Current federal regulations will finally require such switches by the 2009 model year.17

Trunks. Most cars made before 2001 did not have internal trunk releases, making the trunk a suffocation hazard. Retrofit kits are now available for many vehicles.

Rear visibility. Consumer Reports and other news sources have reported the lack of rear visibility in many vehicles, especially SUVs, pickup trucks, and vans.18 Tests measured “blind zones”—the distance behind the vehicle at which an average driver or a five-foot, one-inch driver could not see a 28-inch traffic cone. For the small driver, the blind zone behind one SUV was 69 feet. Only a handful of vehicles, including the Acura MDX, the Honda Pilot, the Lexus RX400h, and the Chevrolet Avalanche offered rear-view cameras as an option to eliminate the blind zone.19

According to Fennell, vehicles back over 50 children in this country every week.20 There is great variation in visibility behind different vehicles, and their design should take this into account. Vehicles like pickup trucks, vans, and SUVs should be equipped with visibility-enhancing devices like rear-view cameras or rear-sensing devices that warn drivers if there is an obstacle behind them.

Some, but not all, vehicles have a “brake-shift interlock” mechanism that prevents a vehicle from being placed in gear unless the brake lever is depressed. Vehicles lacking these commonsense devices have been set in motion by children, injuring themselves and others.

Advocacy groups like Kids and Cars, Consumers Union, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, and Public Citizen have worked to educate legislators about children and nontraffic accidents. As a result, the Cam­eron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act of 2007 became law in February.21

Named in memory of a two-year-old victim of an SUV backover accident, the new law directs the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to implement child-safety regulations in several areas. It mandates new rulemaking on power window safety, rear visibility, and brake-shift interlock. It requires the agency to expand its accident databases to include noncrash injuries and deaths, and establishes a Child Safety Information Program to use this data to advise parents and others how to reduce the risks vehicles pose to small children.

Fennell is looking toward further legislative progress to address the epidemic of child auto injuries, and her group is investigating other fixes, such as requiring audible warnings when rear seat belts are not fastened, similar to those that already exist for the front seats. This technology would also alert parents who inadvertently forget a child is in the rear seat, an occurrence that results in hyperthermia deaths each year.

Nontraffic auto injuries to children present a shared responsibility. Drivers must be educated to walk all the way around a vehicle before backing out of the garage, every single time. Parents and other caretakers must be taught never to leave a small child unattended in a vehicle even for a moment. And automakers must be required to implement safety design changes that will minimize the incidence of accidental injury and death to children.

To protect against collision injuries, we need state laws requiring booster seats for children up to 80 pounds. We need laws on restraining children in cars that permit primary enforcement so that drivers can be stopped and ticketed solely for failing to have their children in proper restraints.

We need uniform, simplified educational materials for public health departments and private health care providers to distribute. These materials should address selection of child safety seats appropriate to the child’s size, proper use of seat belts, the dangers of lap-only belts, proper posture for children in seat belts, the need for top tethers for child seats, and proper installation instructions.

Automakers have responsibilities, too. Safety window switches, trunk releases, brake-shift interlocks, and backup sensors and cameras can prevent tragedy, and these safety features should not be considered as mere options or offered only on high-end vehicles.

We need fit and performance standards for seat belts for children, including testing and injury criteria for four- to eight-year-olds that must be achieved with and without booster seats. We need requirements and safer designs that eliminate delayed restraint and incorporate seat belt pretensioners and web clamps.

We need to either require or provide incentives for automakers to include the safest form of child restraints, integrated child seats. We need research on injury values for child-size crash test dummies, and crash test requirements for the full range of dummies.

And we need a different design ethic. Documents uncovered in litigation show that engineers have recognized and urged use of all the solutions recommended here for many years. We need management at leading automakers to follow through and make sure their engineers’ efforts to protect children are implemented.

It is up to us to protect our children in the cars we drive. We must make a conscious choice to put children first and enact statutes and regulations to ensure that vehicle operators and manufacturers act accordingly.

Stuart Ollanik is a partner with Gilbert, Ollanik & Komyatte in Arvada, Colorado. © 2008 Stuart Ollanik.


  1. See Ford Motor Co., Ford Vehicles: Helpful Guides—Safety, formerly at http://www.fordvehicles/. com/help/guides/safety (Sept. 22, 2006).

  2. See Donna Glassbrenner & Tony Jianqiang Ye, Natl. Hwy. Traffic Safety Admin. (hereinafter NHTSA), Traffic Safety Facts, Research Note: Seat Belt Use in 2007—Overall Results, DOT HS 810 841, www.nhtsa.gov/nhtsa/announce/810_841. pdf (Sept. 2007).

  3. See NHTSA, The Need to Promote Occupant Restraint Use for Children, Youth, and 16- to 20-Year-Olds, DOT HS 810 654, www.nhtsa.dot.gov/ people/injury/airbags/OccupantProtectionFacts/ restraint.htm (2004).

  4. See Li-Hui Chen et al., Graduated Driver Licensing Programs and Fatal Crashes of 16-Year-Old Drivers: A National Evaluation, 118 Pediatrics 56 (2006), www.pediatrics.org/cgi/content/full/ 118/1/56; Ins. Inst. for Hwy. Safety, Good News about Teen Drivers, 42 Status Rpt. 1, 2 (June 15, 2007), www.iihs.org/sr/2007.html.

  5. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208, Occupant Crash Protection, 49 C.F.R. §571.208 (2007).

  6. Id.

  7. See Matthew L. Wald, Keeping Children in Back Seat Cuts Road Deaths, Study Says, 159 N.Y. Times (Aug. 17, 2005), www.nytimes.com/ 2005/08/17/health/17cnd-baby.html; Charles J. Kahane, NHTSA, Fatality Reduction by Air Bags: Analyses of Accident Data through Early 1996 (July 1998), http://www.nhtsa.gov/ (search DOT HS 808 470).

  8. See C.H. Taft et al., Child Passengers at Risk in America: A National Study of Car Seat Misuse (National SAFE KIDS Campaign Feb. 1999), www.usa.safekids.org/tier3_cd.cfm?content_ item_id=2530&folder_id=680; Natl. Safety Belt Coalition, Why Child Safety Seats?, www.nsc.org/ traf/sbc/sbcchild.aspx (Dec. 12, 2002).

  9. The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard was amended to allow less forward excursion of dummies in child restraint seats, which caused automobile manufacturers to equip child restraint seats with top tethers. 49 C.F.R. §571.213 (2007). See Final Rule, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, Child Restraint Systems, Child Restraint Anchorage Systems, 64 Fed. Reg. 10786-01 (Mar. 5, 1999).

  10. This was revealed in discovery documents produced in Combs v. Ford Motor Co., No. 99-CI-00234 (Ky., Knott Co. Cir. 2002)(on file with author).

  11. See NHTSA, Why Are Child Safety Seats Needed?, NHTSA DOT HS 805 174 (1982).

  12. See e.g. N.C. Dept. of Transp., North Carolina Safety Belt Law FAQ: Can’t Safety Belts Actually Cause Injuries?, formerly at www.ncdot.org/ secretary/GHSP/ClickIt/sbfaq.html (Dec. 2005). This language has been replaced by a proper advisory to avoid putting shoulder belts behind the back. Both documents are on file with the author.

  13. 49 C.F.R. §571.209 (2007).

  14. Discovery documents produced in Combs, No. 99-CI-00234 (on file with the author).

  15. See id.

  16. http://www.kidsandcars.org/.

  17. Pub. L. No. 110-189 (Feb. 28, 2008).

  18. See ConsumerReports.org, The Danger of Blind Zones: The Area behind Your Vehicle Can Be a Killing Zone, www.consumerreports.org/cro/cars/ car-safety/car-safety-reviews/mind-that-blind-spot-1005/overview/index.htm (Apr. 2008).

  19. Id.

  20. Id.

  21. Pub. L. No. 110-189.

No comments: