Photo of Roxanne Woods
Roxanne Woods announces that UC Davis Children's Hospital has received a grant to increase booster-seat awareness and use.

Motor vehicle crashes are the number-one killer of children ages 4 to 14 in the United States. All too often, the improper use or non-use of child safety restraints is to blame. And one of the biggest safety concerns for child passengers is using seat belts before they are ready.

UC Davis emergency department and trauma prevention specialists recently announced that they are joining forces with the California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) to educate parents about the importance of using booster seats for children who are not ready to "graduate" to seat belts. Their message is that children should be properly secured in booster seats until they are tall enough — at least 4'9" — to safely wear seat belts. OTS has awarded a $671,000 grant to UC Davis Children's Hospital to support public outreach about the importance of continuing to use safety restraints for children who have outgrown car seats.

Not ready for seat belts designed for adults

"Children aren't ready for seat belts just because they are older than 6 or heavier than 60 pounds," said Roxanne Woods, coordinator of trauma prevention and outreach for UC Davis Children's Hospital, referring to the law requiring that children ride in car seats until they reach a specific age or weight. "They can be too short for the shoulder strap to fit well across their bodies and often pull it under their arms for comfort. Or they slouch in the back seat with the straps across their abdomens or chests."

When worn by children, seat belts can actually cause harm in a crash. "Seat-belt syndrome" refers to injuries associated with lap-belt restraints, including damage to the spine, head, chest and abdomen. In some cases, the injuries can cause permanent disability or death.

From 2002 through 2005, nearly 100 children ages 7-to-9 were admitted to UC Davis Medical Center for injuries from motor vehicle accidents. As more parents learn about the importance of booster seats, that number is expected to decrease. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration , children riding in booster seats are 59 percent less likely to suffer serious injuries than those who are only using seat belts.

Saving lives through awareness

Photo of child in proper booster seat
Cathy Morris, UC Davis trauma prevention specialist, demonstrates how to safely buckle a child into a booster seat, which is known to reduce seat-belt related injuries in the case of a car crash.

"One of the most difficult parts of my job is telling a family that one of their loved ones has been seriously injured or killed in a motor vehicle crash. It is particularly devastating when it is apparent that use of a proper restraint system would have prevented many of those injuries," said Edward Panacek, an emergency physician with UC Davis Medical Center. "Prevention is the best medicine. This new grant will help us do precisely that and help protect children while riding in motor vehicles."

"Wearing a seat belt is the simplest act a vehicle occupant can do to save a life. The same applies to children, but they must have the right seat, for the right age, and the right installation," said OTS Director Christopher J. Murphy. "We want Dr. Panacek to have fewer patients. We want more kids properly buckled into the right safety seat and fewer strapped to a gurney in an ambulance."

Woods said that the new grant will be used for community outreach and training efforts targeting parents and medical professionals.

"We are really honored that the OTS is giving us this opportunity to help reduce preventable injuries to children," she said. "We're ready to get the word out that booster seats can save lives."

UC Davis Children's Hospital is the region's only comprehensive hospital for children. From primary care offices to specialty care clinics, pediatric experts provide compassionate care to more than 74,000 children each year. The Trauma Prevention and Outreach Program focuses on reducing visits to the hospital or doctor's office for unintentional injuries. Its comprehensive outreach efforts encourage child car seat safety, helmet safety and sober driving. The California Office of Traffic Safety administers traffic-safety grant funds to reduce deaths, injuries and economic losses from traffic-related collisions. View a list of child passenger safety fitting stations that offer free car- and booster-seat inspections (PDF).