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Car seat laws: Not as powerful as you might think

Greater education, access could prove more effective
You might expect the threat of a $500 fine to be all it takes to convince most parents to strap their kids into a car seat.

But new Ohio State research suggests that increasingly strict car seat laws might not be the best way to improve safety for more children.

After passage of laws requiring older kids to sit in car seats, it’s mostly the same parents who already were buckling up kids who switch to safety seats, leaving the same number of kids unrestrained, found a study led by Lauren Jones, an assistant professor of consumer sciences.

“These laws can be very appealing for legislators to pass, but our research calls into question their value,” Jones said.

“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.”

Furthermore, higher fines (which reached as much as $500 as of 2016) didn’t appear to make much difference in raising the likelihood parents and other drivers complied with the laws, the study found.

In the last four decades, laws throughout the United States have steadily increased mandatory safety seat restraint ages. In the 1980s and 1990s, safety seat laws were the norm for kids up to age 2 or — at most — 3. By 2012, the average upper age requirement was 6 years old.

About 17 percent of children 7 years old and younger were in car safety seats before new laws expanded age requirements. That percentage jumped to anywhere from 27 percent to almost half after stricter laws took effect, the researchers found.

But the percentage of unrestrained children — those with neither a seatbelt on nor strapped into a car seat — barely moved.

The new study found evidence that the laws saved lives, but that data was limited, Jones said. A best-case estimate showed that between one and 39 children may have survived annually because of safety seats.

“I think the laws have probably reduced fatalities, but probably not as much as most parents would assume,” Jones said.

The study did not examine injuries or severity of injuries before and after passage of stricter laws. It’s possible that children’s injuries have declined because of more widespread use of safety seats, Jones said.