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Collecting Car Seat Use Data to Help Save Lives

September 20, 2022

Motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death and injuries for children, but these can be largely prevented by placing children in the rear seat of the vehicle with proper restraints. As the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) rolls out National Child Passenger Safety Week this September, Westat Senior Study Directors Doreen De Leonardis, Ph.D., and Adele Polson reflect on the work Westat does on behalf of NHTSA and other child passenger safety advocates to provide the data and analysis needed to support their mission of keeping the nation’s youngest vehicle occupants safe.

Passenger Vehicles

Critical data are gathered by the National Survey of the Use of Booster Seats (NSUBS), the only probability-based nationwide child restraint use survey in the U.S. Westat designed this survey, which provides an estimate of child restraint use through observations and interviews, and has conducted it annually since 2006 and biannually since 2009. “Our trained data collectors visit daycare centers, fast food restaurants, gas stations, and recreational centers in 30 counties nationwide,” Dr. De Leonardis, the project director, explains. “As vehicles with child passengers drive onto the parking lots of these businesses, we observe restraint use of all the occupants and conduct brief interviews with drivers to determine the age, height, weight, race, and ethnicity of children in the vehicle.“

“These data provide NHTSA with national estimates of child restraint use and allow safety advocates to understand how frequently children may be in restraint types that are inappropriate for their age, height, and weight,” Dr. De Leonardis says. “It also tells us how restraint use varies across regions and demographic groups, which helps NHTSA target its programs, messaging, and outreach to promote the importance of proper child restraint use.”

Child Passenger Safety Technicians

Although child restraint use has increased over the years, many children are still at risk for serious or fatal injuries because they are either riding unrestrained in vehicles, improperly placed in restraints, or placed in adult seat belts too early.

Westat is a proud program partner for the National Digital Car Seat Check Form (NDCF), along with the National Safety Council (NSC), Tennessee Tech iCube, AAA Mountain West Group, and NHTSA. The NDCF provides a national, standardized data collection tool that allows certified Child Passenger Safety Technicians (CPSTs) and instructors to digitally document whether the child is in the appropriate car seat for their age, height, and weight, and document errors related to how the car seat has been installed as well as how the child has been secured in the car seat.

“These data provide an unprecedented opportunity to develop a nationwide database of information related to child passenger safety that can improve the efficacy of car seat programs and help guide engineering and design improvements for car seats and vehicles, states Ms. Polson, Westat’s project director for this effort. “Safety advocates use the data to gain valuable insights into how car seats are used and help them provide targeted outreach and education,” adds Ms. Polson.

As part of the NDCF team, Westat cleans and analyzes the collected data and makes the analyses easily available to CPSTs across the U.S. by producing 3,000+ customized dashboards each month. “By digitally documenting what is observed and done at car seat checks using the NDCF,” explains Ms. Polson, “we can quickly get accurate data into the hands of technicians who can then educate parents and caregivers to help ensure children are properly restrained for every ride.”

Ride-Share Restraint Use

Children are increasingly riding in shared mobility vehicles, and how caregivers and ride-share drivers are navigating car seat use in for-hire vehicles is largely unknown. There is a lack of research on best practices for promoting child safety in ride-share vehicles, and regulatory inconsistencies (e.g., severity of fines, age of child covered by child restraint laws, etc.) only contribute to the confusion on the part of caregivers and for-hire drivers.

To gain a better understanding of caregiver and ride-share driver behaviors and attitudes related to securing their children in ride-share services, Westat is conducting an observational study for NHTSA. “We plan to augment the observational data by conducting focus groups with caregivers who use ride-share vehicles to transport their children and ride-share drivers to gain a better understanding of perceptions related to child safety restraints, responsibilities, and potential intervention methods to increase use of car seats,” notes Dr. De Leonardis.

Dr. De Leonardis and Ms. Polson note that experienced Westat transportation researchers bring large-scale observational survey experience, child passenger safety expertise, and skilled statisticians to the table enabling Westat to help NHTSA and other transportation safety stakeholders save lives and reduce injuries.

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