Child passenger safety (CPS) is one area of traffic safety that has experienced an explosion of activity and positive results over the past 10 years. Child restraint use has increased significantly over the past decade, and the number of child crash fatalities, including air bag-related fatalities, has decreased dramatically. Progress in safe transport of children can be attributed to a groundswell of support from public safety, child safety advocates, health and safety specialists, government officials and others, along with a responsive public.
The milestones that led to today’s major improvements in transportation safety for children include new research as to the causes and mechanisms of child crash injuries, and application of these research findings via effective public health policies. Also important are the development of quality training programs for police and other child safety advocates, passage of stronger child passenger safety laws, visible enforcement of child passenger safety laws, and a move by parents to buckle up kids and have them ride in rear seating positions.
Child Passenger Safety Week 2004, slated for Feb. 9–15 this year, celebrates the progress made in protecting child passengers and urges all to keep pressing for safer transportation of children. CPS Week is a national effort designed to draw attention to ways to keep young passengers safe in motor vehicles. Agency activities often include public information programs, inspection of car seats for correct use, and other activities designed to get more kids correctly buckled up.
Key research findings relative to kids and cars include: 1) Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for children in every age group from 2–14 with 2095 crash fatalities in 2002; 2) In 2002, an average of six children ages 0–14 were killed and 721 injured every day in motor vehicle crashes in the United States; 3) Fifty percent of children under age 15 who were fatally injured in crashes were completely unrestrained; 4) Child safety seats reduce the risk of fatal injury by 71% for infants and 54% for toddlers (1–4 years) in passenger cars; 5) A child’s injury risk is reduced by 33% when moved from the front to the back seat; and 6) Child safety seats are used incorrectly in 80–90% of the time.
Armed with the realization that more kids die from crashes than any other cause and that many of these fatalities are preventable through correct use of child restraints and seat belts, the nation’s traffic safety and health communities mounted massive efforts over the past decade to train the public about correct restraints for children by age and size. In addition, NHTSA and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) developed training opportunities specific to law enforcement and other professionals so that officers could help families with child passenger safety issues.
Since 1996, more than 30,000 public safety professionals and concerned safety advocates have been trained as Certified CPS Technicians (CPST) through a 32-hour course. The objective of this curriculum, which includes testing and a certification process, is to train a national cadre of safety technicians about correct child restraint selection. Technicians then use this knowledge to answer questions by individual families specific to the safe use of their child’s car seat.
“Operation Kids— Law Enforcement,” a training program designed to encourage law enforcement administrators and officers to actively promote child passenger safety through enforcement and community education, was developed jointly by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). This training is offered in a four-hour format for administrators and an eight-hour and two-day format for officers.
Similar to the national CPS technician training, information taught through “Operation Kids” includes correct use and installation of child restraint systems and the important role police serve as community advocates for child safety. Officers who successfully complete the two-day program receive a certificate of completion from the IACP.
Another enforcement training opportunity is the “Mobilizing America to Buckle Up Children” Program. Developed to support the twice-yearly Buckle Up America campaign, the program is designed to encourage law officers to stop drivers who are transporting children not properly secured and to take appropriate enforcement action. Training opportunities include a 15-minute “roll call” videotape, two-hour and four-hour courses.
Agencies report that CPS trained officers almost always become more aware of unbuckled children during patrols and are much more likely to issue a citation to a driver who is clearly ignoring child safety laws and endangering children in his vehicle.
Surveys conducted in 1997 showed that the overwhelming majority of parents knew their children were required by law to ride buckled up. The fact that many parents still failed to follow these laws, risking the lives of their children, led to a shift in public policy from child safety seat programs based on education only to car seat efforts that were more enforcement-based.
Consequently, enforcement of child restraint and seat belt use laws has been the primary focus of Operation ABC: Mobilizing America to Buckle Up Children, the twice-yearly enforcement push that began in 1997. Sponsored by the National Safety Council’s Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign and conducted in coordination with NHTSA’s Buckle Up! America and Click It or Ticket programs, the mobilizations began with a pledge from 1,000 enforcement agencies to focus on occupant restraint enforcement during May and November every year.
As of the November 2003 Mobilization, more than 12,000 police agencies conducted high visibility enforcement of seat belt and child restraint laws and the results are simply amazing. Seat belt use in the United States has grown from 61% in 1997 to 79% seat belt use in 2003; at least 50 million more Americans buckled up.
One of the best examples of a police department that embraced the call for community child passenger safety service is Hoffman Estates, IL, Police Department (HEPD). This community, located west of Chicago, has 97 sworn officers and has more than 25 certified child passenger safety technicians. This department began its involvement with CPS in 1993 at the urging of an officer who learned about CPS through officers at other agencies.
The department began inspecting car seat installations at yearly inspection station events where parents would wait in lines to have their seats inspected. The number of these events, held at local shopping malls, grew to about five a year and then to monthly events.
When the monthly events were no longer adequate to meet the number of people who wanted seat inspections, HEPD began to conduct car seat inspections at police headquarters by appointment and on a drop-in basis. Community relations and traffic officers are trained CPS Techs at HEPD. The agency has even expanded its CPS program to serve families accessed through its Hispanic Resource Center. The HEPD’s Citizen Police Academy Alumni Association has taken a special interest in the CPS service and Academy members often work as volunteers at car seat check-up events.
HEPD gives car seats to those in need (some 1,500 seats yearly) with funding from local service organizations, grants from local companies, and from public donations. HEPD Police Chief Clinton Herdegen said the agency’s CPS program has generated tons of goodwill and positive relationships with local citizens, the business community and the Hoffman Estates Village Board. The Chief says that for many years a local retailer has called to say that a woman from the community just purchased 10 child safety seats for donation to the department’s car seat program.
“We are very proud to have placed first in the IACP’s Chief Challenge competition nine of the past 10 years. While occupant restraint, speed reduction and DUI enforcement are part of the competition, clearly our commitment to making sure that families have the information they need to keep their children safe from avoidable crash-related injuries is a core component of our traffic safety program,” Chief Herdegen said.
Police agency CPS programs can also be a welcome motivator for individual officers. Robert Wall, a former Fairfax County officer and long-time CPS trainer, now on the staff of the Virginia Chiefs of Police Association, said that often CPS training can help policemen who may be nearing the point of burnout find a niche and motivation for continued service.
Janet Dewey-Kollen is a traffic safety consultant and freelance writer. She is the former director of the Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign and is a certified child passenger safety technician. Janet can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or at (225) 445-0227.