U.S. car-safety policies for child passengers have become some of the weakest in the developed world, according to Martha Bidez, Ph.D., a professor of safety engineering at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and advocate for improved U.S. child-protection standards.
Bidez's comments follow the Oct. 18 announcement of a new, tougher consumer crash-testing program in South America during an international press conference in Uruguay.
Car crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. children 3 to 14 years old, according to the most recent data available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Still, Bidez says the NHTSA has refused to adopt stringent, mandatory crash testing of child restraints in the rear seats of cars sold in the United States.
"I last testified before the NHTSA in 2006 to call for the creation of a child-protection ratings system in either the administration's Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards or its consumer-based New Car Assessment Program, or NCAP," Bidez says. "But despite failure rates of nearly 50 percent in child-restraint systems for rear-seat passengers, no such ratings system has been adopted."
Now, Bidez says America is falling behind other countries in protecting child car passengers after the South American adoption of a child-restraint-testing program as part of its Latin NCAP. NCAPs in Europe and Australia have required child dummies in rear seats during crash tests since 1995 and 2003, respectively.
"The United States is the richest and most influential country in the world, but our government refuses to adopt policies that would illustrate the dangers faced by our children and force automobile manufacturers to engineer safer rear-seat child restraints," Bidez says. "No other industry would be satisfied with a 50 percent failure rate in the performance of its systems, and yet tens of thousands of child passengers die or are injured traumatically each year due to the performance of rear-seat restraints."
Bidez says a standards system is needed so that consumers can better understand the dangers and limitations of current rear seatbelt designs. She believes the risk to child passengers could easily be reduced to a more acceptable risk with the concept of prevention through design. For example, she says parents should not have to require children as old as eight years to ride in a booster seat when the auto industry simply could redesign the placement and function of seat belts in the back seat.
"We have collected extensive data in my lab indicating that cars can be made safer for U.S. children with simple design changes — it is just a matter of having the policies in place that require manufacturers to employ these changes," Bidez says.