Today, more than ever, safety sells. And major automakers such as Ford, GM and Honda, have raced to launch safety-for-all ad campaigns or make announcements that a new safety feature will be standard on all models. But one population has been consistently left out of manufacturers’ plans for improved safety: children between the ages of 4 and 8 years old. The safety community calls these youngsters “The Forgotten Child.” But they are not so much forgotten as systematically ignored by industry and regulators alike. In fact, the historical landscape is dotted with missed opportunities to close the safety gap and warnings about the failure to do so.
Today, motor vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of injury-related unintentional death among children aged 14 and younger; children between the ages of 5 and 14 account for two-thirds of those deaths. In 2005, 585 children ages 5-9 died in motor vehicle crashes; 74,000 suffered injuries. About 8,000 of those injuries were incapacitating-including traumatic brain injuries caused by head trauma and cervical spine and severe abdominal injuries associated with restraint misuse.
These tragic statistics reflect more than benign neglect. They are the result of manufacturers’ conscious decisions to exclude young children in their restraint designs, abetted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s inconsistent and ineffective regulations. Regulators have been slow to require automakers to install the basic equipment necessary to make child safety seats effective-such as rear lap/shoulder belts-particularly in the middle position. They have failed to promulgate standards for child restraints that cover the probable weight ranges for passengers in the 4-8 year-old age range. Astoundingly, there are still no dynamic requirements to test dummies of any size in rear seats, a fact which has contributed to public ignorance of just how unsafe rear seats can be.
Even the legal community remains unaware of the dangers posed by putting children in the rear seats of vehicles equipped with only adult seat belts, which puts them at unnecessary risk of injury and death. We are interested in investigating any case of serious injury to a child who was a rear seat passenger during an automobile accident. Families of such children (and their lawyers) need to be alert to the possibility that serious injuries in this setting may be the result of defective restraint systems (i.e., the seat belts and the seats themselves).