Cars are such an everyday convenience that it's easy to forget how dangerous they can be. But the frightening reality is that even the shortest drive can turn catastrophic: More than 240,000 kids under age 16 are injured in car crashes every year, and another 1,700 are killed. To keep your family safe, we've compiled an action plan for cruising on the highway, driving around town, or even backing out of your driveway. Here's our comprehensive guide.
By Rick Newman from Parents Magazine
Most accidents happen near home. The car crashes you hear about on the evening news tend to be gory high-speed wrecks on busy interstates. But most accidents involving kids actually occur on local, residential roads during a routine trip to the day-care center, the grocery store, or the neighborhood park. That's why it's critical to take all the same precautions for a short drive that you'd take for a three-hour ride to Grandma's. "Always buckle your child up, no matter how near or far you're going," says Marilena Amoni, associate administrator for research and program development at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). "And never forget to use your own seat belt. Kids watch everything that you do, so it's important that you set the right example."
Kids are more at risk than babies and toddlers. Children between ages 4 and 8 are more likely to be injured in a car than kids under 4. That may be because parents tend to slack off about safety as their children get older. Most moms and dads know to strap infants into a rear-facing car seat, for instance; but only 20 percent of kids between 4 and 8 ride in booster seats, as safety experts recommend. And many parents let children climb into the front seat well before they're 13, the minimum age considered safe for riding shotgun. Children are safest in the backseat, where they're farthest away from the impact point of a frontal crash, and where any surfaces they might bump into (the back of the front seats, for example) are likely to be softer than the dashboard.
SUVs don't keep your family safer. You might think that driving a big, high vehicle insulates you from roadway dangers, but in general, test crashes show that SUVs are no safer than ordinary sedans. They're more likely to roll over, especially in a single-vehicle accident where a truck trips over a guardrail or flips during a fast turn. It's hard to make exact comparisons, but larger, lower vehicles (like station wagons) tend to be the safest family cars. Experts say that parents who want an SUV should get one equipped with electronic stability or anti-roll control, designed to help keep the vehicle from flipping over. And don't assume four-wheel drive will keep your kids safer, either. It helps improve traction in snow or mud, but it also encourages people to drive in conditions they otherwise wouldn't (or shouldn't).
A car doesn't have to be moving to be dangerous. Your station wagon isn't going to be involved in a pileup while it's in the driveway, but parked cars are also potentially deadly. And as many as 220 children per year are killed in nontraffic automobile accidents: Some are strangled by a window when they're leaning out and they (or someone else) inadvertently lean on a rocker-type power switch. Others, playing alone in the car, somehow release the emergency brake or move the gear-shift lever, setting a car in motion. Still other children climb through fold-down rear seats into the trunk -- then push the seat backs up and get trapped inside. Finally, at least 30 kids die each year when their parents leave them in the car and they suffocate from overheating. "Children should never, ever be left alone in an automobile -- not even for a minute," says Terrill Struttmann, executive director of Kids in Cars, an education and advocacy organization he and his wife started after their 2-year-old son was killed by a car set in motion by two kids playing alone inside.
Kids don't need to be inside a car to be hurt by one. Despite long-running campaigns to raise public awareness about pedestrian safety, nearly 400 kids age 15 and under are killed each year when they're hit by an automobile. So it's important to remain vigilant: No matter how many times you've warned your child to stay away from the street and to hold your hand in parking lots, you still need to keep a close eye on him -- even in places where you might assume he's safe. A survey conducted by Safe Kids Worldwide found that a majority of drivers speed in school zones, and that nearly a third violate stop signs in neighborhoods where there are kids.