Children have many points of interaction with motor vehicles long before they themselves become licensed drivers, and as pediatricians we can help reinforce to their caregivers the many opportunities that exist to keep children safe. According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS), 27 children and teens between the ages of 0 and 18 were killed in motor vehicle accidents in 2017, and more than 4,400 were injured.
Car Seat Safety
Perhaps the most obvious safety issue for children in a motor vehicle is how they ride in that car. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that all infants and toddlers should ride in a Rear-Facing Car Safety Seat until they are two years old or until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by their car safety seat’s manufacturer.
Often, parents or caregivers will ask about booster seats for older children. A child who is both under age 8 and shorter than 4 feet 9 inches is required to be fastened in a child safety seat that meets federal safety standards. Under this law, a child cannot use a seat belt alone until they are age 8, or 4 feet 9 inches tall. It is recommended to keep a child in a booster based on their height rather than their age. Check the instruction book or label of the child safety seat to be sure it is the right seat for a child’s weight and height.
Minnesota does not have a law prohibiting children from riding in the front seat. However, according to the Office of Traffic Safety, it is considered safest and the best practice to keep children in the back seat until they reach age 13.
You can recommend parents or caregivers visit CarSeatsMadeSimple.org for easy to find information. This website is maintained by the Minnesota Safety Council. The Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety also keeps a calendar of free car seat check opportunities under its “Child Passenger Safety” section of its website.
Unattended Minors in Motor Vehicles
Minnesota does not have specific laws that address the age at which a child may be left unattended in a motor vehicle. However, accidents can happen quickly, and young children lack the impulse control or decision making skills to keep themselves as safe as an adult caregiver can.
In addition to accidents, weather can affect the internal temperature of a motor vehicle quickly, and a child left unattended in a car may not be able to escape a vehicle that becomes too hot or too cold. The National Safety Council has recorded 6 child heatstroke deaths in vehicles in Minnesota since 1998, but any number is too great.
Remind parents and caregivers that leaving children unattended in motor vehicles is a decision that must be weighed carefully based on the child’s age, ability, and maturity, but that the best course of action is to not leave children unattended in a car.
Technology and Driving
Minnesota recently enacted a hands-free law on Aug. 1, which requires drivers to put down their phones and go hands-free while driving. This is excellent news for child passenger safety, because children involved in a distracted driving traffic accident are the unintended victim to an avoidable situation.
The new law allows drivers over 18 to use their cell phones to make calls, text, listen to music or podcasts and get directions, but only by voice commands or single-touch activation without holding the phone.
When talking with teen patients, remind them that the new hands-free law does not change anything for teens under 18 with a driver’s permit or provisional driver’s license: they cannot make or answer calls while driving (hand-held or hands-free).
The DPS has prepared several resources to help in educating patients and their caregivers about the new law, and these can be viewed on its website at HandsFreeMN.org.
No driver should ever sit behind the wheel of a car while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and children should not be in the car with a driver who is impaired. In 2017, the DPS reported two Minnesota children between the ages of 0 and 18 were killed in alcohol-related car crashes, and 231 were injured in alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents.
For additional resources, visit: http://www.mnaap.org/work-groups/child-safety/ and click on free safety resources.
About the Author
Vijay Chawla, MD, FAAP, is a member of the MNAAP Child Safety Work Group. Dr. Chawla retired after practicing for 20 years at the Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea.