PULLMAN – Washingtonians may lead the nation in buckling up when they drive, but recent research at WSU shows the state’s drivers are not nearly so conscientious when it comes to providing proper child safety restraints for the children riding with them.

Just last month, a study conducted by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission showed more than 96 percent of Washington’s drivers are buckling themselves up when they hit the road.

In contrast, only roughly half the children weighing under 40 pounds and less than 18 percent of children weighing between 40 and 80 pounds were found to be properly restrained in child safety seats or booster seats during the initial phase of a statewide study conducted by WSU recently on behalf of the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission.

Perhaps even more discouraging to primary researchers Nicholas Lovrich and Steven Stehr of the WSU Department of Political Science /Criminal Justice Program was the finding that the use of proper child safety restraint systems has declined across the state since they initially began studying the issue in 2000, even though seatbelt usage by drivers during the same period has steadily increased.

“This is the seventh year we have done this type of study and our main finding is that there has been considerable ‘backsliding’ in the use of both child safety seats for smaller children and booster seats for larger children,” said Stehr, associate professor and department chair. “This is a puzzle, frankly, because there is typically a strong correlation between adult seatbelt and child safety restraint use.”

The recent study reports that the use of proper child restraint systems statewide generally increased during the period between 2000 and 2004, but has steadily declined for the past three years.

Because the initial phase of the recent study involved only fieldobservations at various locations across the state, Stehr said the researchers have yet to compile data to be used in attempting to identify the major factors contributing to the declining trend. Those factors are expected to be addressed in the second phase of the research, which is expected to take place in 2008.

The researchers’ most recent study indicates approximately 51 percent of children weighing less than 40 pounds were observed riding in an infant safety seat – a significant decline from the nearly 77 percent rate of child seat usage initially observed by the researchers in the 2000. For the 40-to-80-pound weight group, only about 17 percent were recently observed riding in proper booster seats. By comparison, slightly more than 22 percent of children in the 40-to-80-pound range were properly seated in 2000 and as many as 49 percent of those in that group were identified as properly seated as recently as 2004.

Lovrich cautioned that the study findings should not be taken as an indication that large numbers of children were observed riding with no safety restraints at all, but rather that they were seated in restraining systems considered improper by safety experts and illegal under state law.

“Generally speaking, children are not being transported unrestrained. In fact, only about two percent of the smallest children and six percent of the larger children were observed riding in vehicles unrestrained,” Lovrich said.

“But the smallest children observed – those under 40 pounds – were just about as likely to be riding in a booster seat intended for a larger child or restrained by some type of adult seatbelt system as to be in a proper child safety seat,” he said.

Observers also found that children between 40 and 80 pounds were more than four times more likely to be seated in vehicle seatbelts than in a proper booster seat (76.9 percent versus 17.5 percent), Lovrich said.

According to traffic safety professionals, the use of booster seats or seatbelts for children under 40 pounds and the use of seatbelts for larger children up to 80 pounds is unsafe. Under Washington state law, child safety seats are required for all children under 40 pounds. Booster seats are required for all children between 40 and 80 pounds until such time as they reach either a height of 57 inches or the age of eight. The law also requires that all children under the age of 13 must be seated in rear seats of the vehicle when practical. Drivers who transport improperly restrained children in motor vehicles can be fined at least $112 per child.

Stehr said also that a detailed breakdown of the study data provides researchers with information that can be characterized as somewhat encouraging from a child safety perspective. As an example, he said that between 94 and 97 percent of the children weighing under 40 pounds were found to be properly located either in the back seat or in the far back seat of the vehicle – an observation which has remained fairly consistent through each of the studies conducted since 2000. Another example is that a very high percentage of children aged one year old or less – up to 99 percent, in certain instances – were found to be seated in a proper child safety seat, he said.

“However, the study shows also that this rate of safety seat usage for children aged one and under declines to 44.3 percent for children between the ages of 2 and 3 years and that over half of these children were observed seated in either a booster seat or a seat belt of some kind,” Stehr said. “This seems to suggest there’s initially a widespread
appreciation of the importance of providing proper safety seating during infancy, but that it falls off fairly precipitously for some reason.”

Lovrich noted that the researchers’ prior studies have indicated that the type of vehicle driven impacts child safety restraint use, and that child safety restraint usage remains lower across the state for pickup truck drivers than for drivers other types of vehicles.

When observing children weighing less than 40 pounds, pickup truck drivers were shown in the recent study to be using a child safety seat 46.2 percent of the time. The highest rate of safety seat usage by the smallest children in the study was observed by drivers of sport utility vehicles (51.6 percent) and drivers of sedans (51.6 percent). Drivers of vans or station wagons were only slightly behind this rate (50.0 percent).

While only a small percentage of van/station wagon, or SUV drivers utilized lap or lap/shoulder belts when transporting infants, fully 31.5 percent of pickup drivers in this study were using a seat belt to restrain smaller children. It should be noted, however, that drivers of sedans also were observed utilizing seat belts for these children approximately 20.8 percent of the time, Lovrich said.

Nicholas P. Lovrich Jr. has been the WSU Claudius O. and Mary W. Johnson Distinguished Professor of Political Science since 1998, and has served as the Director of the Division of Governmental Studies and Services at WSU for the past 30 years.

Steven D. Stehr was the founding director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at WSU, and served as interim director of the institute from 1995 to 1998. An associate professor of political science, he has served as the chair of the WSU Department of Political Science /Criminal Justice Program since 2002.