The University Record, January 22, 2001

Safety belt use among Michigan children is on the rise

By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services

In the second annual study of seat belt use by children age 15 and under, David W. Eby and colleagues at UMTRI found that nearly 97 percent of children age 3 and under and about 75 percent of children ages 4–15 were restrained either in child safety seats or by safety belts. Children’s rates of safety belt use were higher if the driver of the vehicle in which the youngsters were riding also was wearing a safety belt.
Thanks to a new law and greater public awareness, safety belt use by children in Michigan improved to 81 percent last year, up from 66 percent in 1999, say U-M researchers.

In the second annual study of seat belt use by children age 15 and under, David W. Eby and colleagues at the Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) found that nearly 97 percent of children age 3 and under and about 75 percent of children ages 4–15 were restrained either in child safety seats or by safety belts.

The biggest improvement was made among the older group of children, with seat belt use up from about 58 percent the previous year, the study shows.

“Undoubtedly, the introduction of standard enforcement legislation has had an effect,” Eby says. “The increase in overall child restraint use is similar to the 13 percentage-point increase in adult safety belt use after Michigan’s safety belt law was upgraded to standard enforcement in March 2000.

“Operation ABC, a nationally coordinated effort designed to increase awareness of child passenger safety laws, along with zero-tolerance enforcement of these laws, are very likely other factors contributing to the increase in child restraint use.”

According to the U-M study, children’s rates of safety belt use were higher if the driver of the vehicle in which the youngsters were riding also was wearing a safety belt. About 86 percent of children with belted drivers buckled up, compared with 52 percent of those riding with unrestrained drivers.

“The single most important factor in child occupant restraint use is adult safety belt use,” Eby says. “When the driver is belted, many studies, including this one, have established that child occupants are much more likely to be restrained. This trend is especially evident for the 4–15-year-old age group.”

Among this age group, safety belt use rates were 82 percent when the driver of the vehicle was wearing a seat belt, but only 35 percent when not, the researchers say.

On the other hand, Eby and his colleagues found that the gender of the driver had virtually no effect on whether a child buckled up. In fact, rates were slightly higher for children riding with male drivers (about 84 percent) than for those with female motorists (about 80 percent).

“Previous adult safety belt surveys conducted in Michigan have shown that females are more likely than males to use a safety belt,” Eby says. “As children are much more likely to be restrained in vehicles in which the adult driver is also belted, it could be expected that child passengers would have a higher restraint use rate in vehicles with a female driver. However, no significant difference was found.”

In addition, the researchers say that children riding in vans/minivans, sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks were somewhat more likely to wear safety belts (about 85 percent) than those in passenger cars (about 78 percent). In 1999, the rate for both cars and pickups was about 60 percent. “This finding was surprising, because passenger car safety belt use in Michigan is usually about the same as belt use in vans, minivans and SUVs,” Eby says.

Finally, while the study found that seating position (front seat vs. rear seat, center seat vs. window seat) made little difference in whether a child was buckled up or not, nearly half of the children ages 4–15 and more than 5 percent of those under age 4 were observed in the front seat—despite numerous studies that show children are much safer in a rear seat.

“Public information and education programs should focus on increasing restraint use for older children regardless of seating position, while enforcing the idea that children are at much less risk of injury in a motor vehicle crash if they are seated in the rear,” Eby says.

Data for the study was collected by observing the safety belt use of children in vehicles arriving and departing at such sites as schools, fast-food restaurants, skating rinks, malls, movie theaters and recreation centers.

Nearly 3,400 children were observed at 128 sites located in Michigan’s 28 most populous counties.

Other researchers on the study were Lidia P. Kostyniuk, Jonathon M. Vivoda and Tiffani A. Fordyce.

The study was sponsored by the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.