Imagine being on vacation with friends at a lake house, packing up to go home, lots of chaos with adults and children, vehicles moving in the driveway, luggage strewn about, and suddenly realizing you do not know where your son is.
“I just immediately knew, bolted for the door,” said Amber Rollins, director of Kids and Car Safety (KidsAndCars.org), a research and advocacy organization. “My two-year-old was behind a car and the driver would not have seen him. There is danger everywhere you turn. I was lucky enough to get there in time.”
Not every parent gets there in time. According to Parents.com, about 400 children under age 15 are killed each year after being hit by a vehicle. The CDC reports that more than 90,000 children are injured in auto-related accidents. As the parent of an 8-year-old daughter, my heart goes out to their families. More can be done to protect our kids in and around automobiles.
When I was a kid, my parents threw sleeping bags in the back of our station wagon so my sister and I could play and nap. That would be illegal now — not that most parents would countenance the idea, given all we’ve learned since then.
What’s the best thing parents can do to keep kids safe?
“It’s a no-brainer,” Rollins said. “Make sure they are in proper restraint for their age and size and buckled in correctly on every drive.”
And if you’re in a hurry to get your growing kid to the next and often easier-to-use seat, pump the brakes.
“Parents are eager to move to the next stage, but it’s actually a demotion of safety,” Rollins continued. “You can’t keep kids in safety seats forever, but leave them in until they are maxed out with height and weight. The overwhelming majority are installed incorrectly. Your local police and fire department can direct you to an instructor.”
It’s not necessary to buy the most expensive seat. My daughter had a red racing-style seat because she’s cool like that, but all seats are federally regulated to meet standards. Just be sure to try them out in your car before you commit, and read the manual thoroughly to understand your seat’s specific rules for installation.
Also consider the car your seat goes into. Every car is different, so reach into the rear cushions to find the car seat attachment loops. Many European cars have plugs that guide in the seat clips, but others will have you reaching deep into the cushions to find the anchors. Easier is better.
New dangers await
Keeping children safe inside of vehicles is the best thing you can do, but there are new dangers — and new technologies — to overcome them.
“We’re aware of blind zones behind, but they are also in front where you can’t see a kid up to 15 feet ahead,” Rollins said. “We did an experiment where we placed 18 kids in front of an SUV and the driver could not see them! People believe they can see what’s in front of them, but they can’t.”
As our vehicles have grown taller and bulkier, the problem of “front-overs,” or driving forward over an unseen child, increased. You should walk around your vehicle every time you drive it, but technology like around-view “bird’s eye” camera systems can also prevent accidents. Rear cameras have been mandated since 2018, but front cameras have not. Many of today’s SUVs offer a switch-activated front trail camera that can be used to check for children before driving away.
It’s also become common for vehicles to have forward-looking cameras, radar or LIDAR to anticipate a collision and apply the brakes. These systems, commonly known as automatic emergency braking (AEB), are not created equal. Older systems were designed to recognize another vehicle to avoid a serious collision but were not calibrated to detect a child, cyclist or pedestrian. The newest systems that are gaining wide acceptance can. Parents should ask about the sophistication of the AEB system when shopping for a new vehicle and choose one that detects pedestrians.
A recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) proves the point. When IIHS made pedestrian AEB a requirement for its coveted TOP SAFETY PICK and TOP SAFETY PICK+ ratings in 2019, only 60% of vehicles had the technology available and only 20% earned the highest rating. By 2021, pedestrian AEB is available in 90% of models. It has become the standard you should demand.
Childproof your ride
Dangers lurk inside your vehicle, too. Every summer, we learn about children who were either left in vehicles or accidentally locked themselves in them. In the hot sun, it only takes minutes for kids to suffer heatstroke. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends that you keep parked vehicles locked at all times, teach children that vehicles are not playgrounds and never leave a child in a vehicle while running errands. Rolling down windows does little to keep a vehicle cool, even in the shade.
Fortunately, there’s technology to help parents remember their offspring in the back seat. I know from experience that child safety alert systems keep parents from leaving their children unattended — on purpose or accidentally. But, like other safety systems, they are of varying levels of sophistication. The most common rely on door sensors to detect a door opened and assume a child entered the rear, while more advanced versions, like the latest employed by Hyundai/Kia, use seat sensors and motion detectors.
Going further, the Korean automakers commonly employ their Safe Exit Assist system that taps blind spot sensors to detect cars coming alongside the vehicle and prevents the doors from opening into fast traffic. Kids should always be taught to exit curbside, but these systems provide an additional margin of safety just in case. When buying a vehicle, request these systems.
In the end, the best way to prevent children from getting hurt in and around automobiles is for their caretakers to keep their minds engaged.
“One thing to keep children safe is to focus on vehicle safety and make that a priority,” Rollins said. “Tragedies happen in split seconds.”