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OSU study: Car seat laws for older kids have limited impact

Special to the Legal News

Published: July 14, 2017

Laws that require increasingly older kids to sit in car safety seats appear to have limited impact, new Ohio State University-led research has found.

The same parents who already were buckling up kids appear most likely to switch to safety seats, leaving the same number of kids unrestrained, researchers concluded in an article published in a recent edition of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

"These laws can be very appealing for legislators to pass, but our research calls into question their value," said Lauren Jones, lead researcher and OSU assistant professor of consumer sciences. "Our study suggests that safety-conscious parents are likely to do what makes their child the safest but these laws don't have much effect on other parents."

In addition, the study found that higher fines - some as high as $500 in 2016 - didn't appear to make much difference in raising the likelihood parents and other drivers complied with the laws.

According to the study, laws throughout the United States have steadily increased mandatory safety seat restraint ages during the course of the last forty years.

In the 1980s and 1990s, safety seat laws were the norm for kids up to age 2 or 3 years old. By 2012, the average upper age requirement was 6 years old.

The study found that about 17 percent of children 7 years old and younger were in car safety seats before the expanded age requirements.

The percentage jumped from 27 percent to almost half after stricter laws took effect, researchers found.

The percentage of unrestrained children, however, barely moved.

"I think the laws have probably reduced fatalities, but probably not as much as most parents would assume," Jones said. "Thank goodness childhood car crash deaths are something that happens relatively infrequently, but that also makes it harder to evaluate."

Jones and Nicolas Ziebarth of Cornell University used a national database of fatal crashes from 1975 to 2011 to examine before- and after-restraint use and fatalities.

Analyzing law-mandated child safety seat use against use in children in different states in the same year, children in the same state in different years and older children in the same state during the same year, the pair sought to improve the quality of their evaluation, a press release explained.

Jones and Ziebarth found that there was no evidence that safety seat laws significantly changed the percentage of children who go unrestrained.

"It's not a costless piece of legislation, especially for low-income families," Jones said. "Education, particularly of young parents, and resources to help them afford seats could be more impactful policy tools."

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