Car Crash Stats: How Effective Are Car Seats?

The number of children who have died in motor vehicle-related crashes has decreased by around 61% since the mid-70s.1,2 That's fabulous news, but there are still some concerning statistics that need improvement. 

For example, 37% of all children under the age of 15 who died in car crashes in 2020 were unrestrained.1  Studies suggest that children are between 54% (toddlers) and 71% (infants) less likely to sustain a fatal injury if they're secured in a properly installed car seat.3 

It’s estimated that at least 11,606 children under the age of four have been saved by car seats between 1975 and 2017.4

In addition to driving safely, the most important thing you can do to keep your child safe in the car is to buckle them into an age-appropriate and properly-installed car seat. Some states have passed child car seat laws to encourage parents to do this, and we wanted to know if stricter laws mean lower fatality rates.


Child car crash fatality rates and restraint laws

It turns out that stricter state car seat laws don’t strongly correlate with lower car-related child fatality rates. In fact, if you look at the comparison charts below, you'll see that the states with the highest child traffic crash fatality rates were more likely to have extended rear-facing and booster seat requirements than the states with the lowest child fatality rates.

Only one state (Montana) fit the expected profile of a state with virtually no child restraint laws and a high child fatality rate. 

We're certainly not poo-pooing child safety laws, but our analysis shows that keeping kids safe in cars is way more nuanced than enacting legislation. 

Other factors may include whether the child restraint was installed and used correctly, the type of vehicle involved in the crash, vehicle speed at impact, etc. 

Top 10 states with lowest child traffic crash fatality rates

According to the NHTSA, fatal car crashes involving children happened most (and least) frequently in these states in 2020—the most recent year with available data.5,13 The numbers shown are representative of every 100,000 children in each state. For example, for every 100,000 children in Mississippi, 4.89 were killed in a motor vehicle crash.

2020 rankState 2020 child fatality rateUnrestrained fatalitiesExtended rear-facing lawsChild booster lawsSeat belt restrictions
1 (tie)Rhode Island0.00 0.0% No No Yes
1 (tie)Delaware0.000.0%NoNoYes
1 (tie)District of Columbia0.000.0%YesNoYes
4Massachusetts0.09100%NoNo Yes
5Hawaii0.400.0%No Yes Yes
6New Hampshire0.490.0%No No Yes
7Connecticut0.51100%Yes Yes Yes
8Maryland0.6375.0%No NoYes
9New Jersey0.7518.2%YesYesYes
10Minnesota0.8336.4%No NoYes

National average

1.8139.8%

Top 10 states with highest child traffic crash fatality rates

2020 rankState 2020 child fatality rateUnrestrained fatalitiesExtended rear-facing lawsChild booster lawsSeat belt restrictions
50Mississippi4.89 25.0% No Yes Yes
49Montana4.7220.0%NoNoNo
48Arkansas4.4845.5%NoNoYes
47Oklahoma3.4035.7%YesYesYes
46Kansas3.2920.0%Yes Yes Yes
45Arizona3.0134.6%No YesYes
44Alabama2.8834.8%Yes Yes Yes
43Georgia2.6848.8%No NoYes
42Alaska2.6650.0%YesYesYes
41North Dakota2.5950.0%No NoYes

National average

1.8139.8%

Additional findings

While we didn’t find a direct correlation between lax state laws and traffic deaths, there were a few interesting national findings worth mentioning.

  • In 2020, 463 children under the age of 10 and 425 children ages 10 to 15 died in car accidents. More than 139,000 other children from infancy to age 15 were injured.1
  • Twenty-six years earlier in 1994, the numbers were even worse: 1,123 children under 10 and 1,133 children ages 10 to 15 died in car accidents.2 
  • The number of children who died in car accidents in 2020 increased by 3% compared to the previous year.5,6
  • Fatal vehicle accidents involving children have decreased by 61% since 1975.7
  • Idaho allows children to ride out of their safety seat if held by an attendant for “nursing or to meet another immediate physiological need.”8
  • Two children died while riding the school bus in 2020. A total of 70 school bus passengers died in traffic crashes between 2010 and 2020.9
  • The use of car seats for children between 4 and 7 years old dropped from 91% in 2011 to 86.2% in 2019.10,11 
  • Of the children younger than 1 year old who died in motor vehicle accidents in 2020, 25% were unrestrained. The percentage of unrestrained children in fatal vehicle accidents increases to 30% for children 1 to 3 years old and 39% for children 4 to 7 years old. It falls slightly to 36% for for children 8 to 12 years old before rising again to 51% for kids ages 13 or 14.5

How to keep children safe in the car

The best way to prevent traffic fatalities is to drive safely and use the right safety restraint for your kids. The correct seat for your child will depend on their height, weight, and age. The best car seats are comfortable for your kids and easy for you to install.

Follow these car seat dos and don’ts every time.12

Always read the instructions before installing your child’s car seat for the first time.

Always check to make sure your kids are secured tightly before every ride. The car seat shouldn’t move more than 1 inch from side to side.

Always register new child safety seats with the manufacturer. This will keep you updated on recalls and important brand news.

Always match car seat harnesses to their designated slots as shown in your car seat’s manual.

Always use the top tether when securing a front-facing car seat.

Always buckle up with your kids. It sets a good example and keeps you safe too.

Never let your kids ride in the car without a safety restraint.

Never let your kids ride in another vehicle without the right safety restraints.

Never secure a rear-facing car seat in the front passenger seat.

Never buckle in your child while they’re wearing a bulky coat or outerwear. You can use the coat as a blanket or throw, but thick outerwear can make the seat less effective.

Never let kids under 13 ride in the front seat. Avoid letting them ride in vehicles with no back seat or active front-seat passenger airbags.

Never use an expired, recalled, or damaged car seat.

If you have a car seat in your vehicle, visit a Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician in your community to double-check that it’s properly installed. Find a car seat inspection station in your area or learn how to become a licensed car seat technician.

Car crash stats methodology

The SafeWise team evaluated car crash data from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration to determine which states in the country had the highest and lowest numbers of child car crash fatalities per 100,000 children. We also examined state laws on child safety and pediatric recommendations for the best safety practices for children up to 13 years old.


Sources

  1. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “Table 85 Passenger Car and Light-Truck Occupants Killed and Injured, by Age Group and Restraint Use, 2020.” Accessed September 9, 2022.
  2. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "Drivers of Passenger Cars and Light Trucks in Fatal Crashes by Restraint Use,1994-2020 - State : USA, Year : 2020." Accessed September 9, 2022.
  3. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “Revised Estimates of Child Restraint Effectiveness,” December 1996. Accessed August 31, 2022. 
  4. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Traffic Safety Facts Annual Report, “Lives Saved by Restraint Use and 21‐Year‐Old Minimum Legal Drinking Age Laws, and Additional Lives That Would Have Been Saved at 100‐Percent Seat Belt and Motorcycle Helmet Use, 1975‐2017,” March 2020. Accessed September 9, 2022.
  5. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "Traffic Safety Facts: Children," April 2022. Accessed September 9, 2022.
  6. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "Motor Vehicle Occupant and Motorcyclist Fatalities by Age Group, 1994 - 2020 - State : USA." Accessed September 9, 2022.
  7. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, “Child Safety,” April 2021. Accessed August 31, 2022. 
  8. Idaho Legislature, "Title 49 Motor Vehicles, Chapter 6 Rules of the Road," 2005. Accessed September 9, 2022.
  9. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "Table 95 - People Killed and Injured in School-Bus-Related Crashes, by Person Type, 2020." Accessed September 9, 2022.
  10. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “Quick Facts 2013,” April 2015. Accessed September 9, 2022. 
  11. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “Quick Facts 2019,” May 2021. Accessed September 9, 2022. 
  12. Mayo Clinic, “Car seat safety: Avoid 9 common mistakes,” February 2022. Accessed September 9, 2022. 
  13. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "People: Restraints: [State]." Accessed September 9, 2022.
Cathy Habas
Written by
Cathy Habas
With over seven years of experience as a content writer, Cathy has a knack for untangling complex information. Her natural curiosity and ability to empathize help Cathy offer insightful, friendly advice. She believes in empowering readers who may not feel confident about a purchase, project, or topic. Cathy earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Indiana University Southeast and began her professional writing career immediately after graduation. She has contributed to sites like Safety.com, Reviews.com, Hunker, and Thumbtack. Cathy’s pride and joy is her Appaloosa “Chacos.” She also likes to crochet while watching stand-up comedy specials on Netflix.

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