Child restraint laws across many states have gaps that leave unprotected passengers highly vulnerable to vehicle-crash injuries, a study by researchers at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development has found.

State Child Restraint Laws Leave Many Unprotected

The findings, which appeared recently in the journal Social Science and Medicine, show that many child restraint laws lag behind existing research on vehicular safety and fail to follow guidelines adopted by medical experts.

In the U.S., nearly 250,000 children are injured every year in car crashes and approximately 2,000 die from their injuries. Moreover, the child passenger fatality rate is at least double that of other comparable wealthy nations. Previous studies have shown that the proper use and placement of child restraint devices can reduce the injuries and fatalities.

The Social Science and Medicine study examined child passenger safety laws from 1978 to 2010 in all 50 states, analyzing changes over time and inter-state differences.

The results showed that some state child restraint laws, such as those in Arizona, Michigan, and South Dakota, covered children only up until the age of 4. However, the American Association of Pediatrics recommends the use of child restraint devices until the vehicle seat belt fits them properly, which is typically when they have reached 4 feet 9 inches in height and are between 8 and 12 years of age.

The researchers also pointed to the high number of exemptions that state laws grant. For instance, as of 2010, 33 states failed to protect child passengers if the drivers are driving commercial passenger vehicles, while 16 states exempted drivers that carry more children than their vehicle space can handle—as long as the drivers used restraint devices for as many children as the space allowed.

The researchers noted the legal terrain for child restraint laws differed sharply from that for state alcohol laws—and suggested that federal incentives may explain the difference.

The study’s authors were Jin Yung Bae, James Macinko, and Diana Silver of NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, and Evan Anderson of Temple University’s Center for Health, Law, Policy, and Practice.

The research was supported by grants from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the National Institutes of Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Public Health Law Research Program.


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