The safety of the children riding in our cars has been influencing automotive design and traffic laws for decades, but new research suggests another factor in keeping younger passengers safe is the age of the person behind the wheel - but in a surprising way. Research published in the journal Pediatrics found that children involved in car crashes with grandparent drivers had half the risk of being injured as kids riding with their parents.
Grandparents were the drivers in 9.5 percent of crashes involving kids between 2003 and 2007, but they were associated with only 6.6 percent of injuries. Only about 0.7 percent of kids riding with grandparents were hurt, compared with 1.05 percent of kids riding with parents, a reduction of risk of about 33 percent. That rose to 50 percent when factors such as age, restraint use and crash characteristics were considered. Grandparents were just as safe as parents when it came to markers of crash type and severity, such as posted speed limits, the direction of impact and whether wrecks resulted in rollovers or tows. So, why is it that children seem to be safer when Grandma is driving?
Lead study researcher Dr. Fred M. Henretig, a pediatrician and emergency room physician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, offers one explanation based on his own experiences with his grandchildren. "You can't let anything bad happen," he said. "You think, 'My son or my daughter would kill me if I get into an accident while I'm driving.'"
Henretig admits he thought grandparents would fare poorly in the analysis of nearly 12,000 motor vehicle accidents reported for insurance claims involving children under age 15. He expected factors such as older cars and a general decline in driving ability to contribute to increased injury. While the reason isn't clear from his research, Henretig suspects that the overprotective nature of grandparents, coupled with their increased experience driving, makes them more aware of potential dangers and more cautious. While not included in Henretig's research, another factor that may be at play is distraction. Older drivers tend to be less distracted than younger drivers, with fewer people and gadgets competing for their attention in the car.
The key difference between grandparents and parents in the study involved the proper use of car-safety seats, but even this is counterintuitive to the study's finding. Nearly all children were restrained whether they rode with parents or grandparents, but about 25 percent of kids driving with grandparents weren't restrained properly - most often buckled into a standard seatbelt instead of an age-appropriate toddler seat or booster seat - while only 20 percent of kids driving with parents were improperly restrained. But still, the grandparent drivers were safer, perhaps because of what Henretig describes as "some unaccounted-for protective grandparent driving style characteristics."
"Older drivers tend to 'self-regulate'," added Nancy Thompson, a spokeswoman for the AARP, which teaches safety classes to its age 50-plus members. "That means older drivers may avoid freeways and peak traffic times, as well as driving at night or in bad weather, all factors that reduce crashes," she said.
The grandparents in this study ranged in age from 43 to 77, with an average age of 58. Parents ranged from 22 to 51, with an average age of 36.
Clearly, there needs to be more research on this topic, but this study's findings, though surprising, make a lot of sense. When we slow down, acknowledge and compensate for the dangers involved in driving, think about the safety of our passengers and reduce distraction, we make it safer for everyone in our vehicle and can reduce the risk of crash-related injuries.
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