It is part of a fresh look at how to keep kids safer in traffic accidents. And besides new research from companies like Ford, experts are recommending that we keep kids in rear-facing car seats longer than previously advice.
Up to now, as automakers and their suppliers have studied how to best protect drivers and passengers in vehicle crashes, there hasn't been that much separating the study of crash effects on adults versus children. But Ford, for one, is innovating its research around design and safety technology that can better protect children in a vehicle crash based on the differences between the size and body parts of kids and those of grown-ups.
There is much information and advice in the market about protecting kids up to age 6 with child seats, boosters, rear-facing seats and even laws that make it unlawful to put kids under a certain size in the front passenger seat. But Ford's research--which is digitally based, and not yet in the crash-dummy phase-- starts with a child prototype that is age-6, which is when some parents start seating kids without a booster.
Ford's research will soon be extended to actual crash dummies. Ford engineers began developing these child-size digital models late last year, and the program is being conducted in conjunction with Tianjin University of Science and Technology in China--which is working with Tianjin Children's Hospital--to obtain "child geometry" and basic body information from sources like MRIs and CAT scans provided by volunteers. Tianjin is one of the largest cities in China, close to the capital of Beijing.
"We study many injury trends in the field, and we know that traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for children; in fact, for people from age one all the way up to age 34," says Steve Rouhana, Senior Technical Leader for Safety, Ford Research and Advanced Engineering.
How exactly is protecting a child so much different than an adult? For starters, a child's head is much more vulnerable than an adult's, partly because a small child's head is proportionally much heavier than an adult's. "In a five-month-old fetus, the head represents one-third of the body weight," says Rouhana – "compared to 1/10 to 1/20th of the total body weight for a 25-year-old."
But, at the same time, a small child's neck muscles are obviously not yet fully developed, so they are not as strong as the neck muscles of an older teen or adult. "So, a child is more vulnerable to an injury where the head is going to strike something because the neck muscles are not holding it in place," Rouhana says. "Or, the neck is injured because the head is moving forward in a crash, but the neck muscles are not strong enough to hold it back."
Ford has already done a great deal of work on developing and using digital adult models. That program began in 1993, and the models continue to be used in research.
The child digital model presently being developed is the size of a typical six-year-old, says Rouhana. "Because, up to that age, they are typically using the child restraints built into the child-car seat, as opposed to our vehicles' restraint systems. We may eventually also develop a model for an older child if we discover that's something we need to do."
New standards for kids in cars
Ford's research is accelerating at a time when safety organizations are already changing recommendations about we protect kids in the car. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), in the April issue of Pediatrics magazine, is advising parents to keep their toddlers in rear-facing car seats until age two, or until they reach the maximum height and weight for their seat. The organization also advises that most children will need to ride in a belt-positioning booster seat until they have reached 4 feet 9 inches tall and are between 8 and 12 years of age.
That's a change from the group's previous recommendation, dating back to 2002, which advised that it was safest for infants and toddlers to ride rear-facing up to the limits of the car seat--citing age-12 months and 20-pounds as a minimum. Ever since that standard was laid down, parents who followed the APA's recomendations were celebrating the child's one-year birthday by turning the car seat forward.
The recent change is based primarily on the data from a 2007 University of Virginia study that found that that children under the age of two were 75 percent less likely to suffer severe or fatal injuries in a crash if they are facing the rear.
Dr. Dennis R. Durbin, scientific co-director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, was the lead author of the APA's new policy statement, and he echoes Rouhana's observations about the weight of a baby's head and the relative weakness of the child's neck muscles.
So, if that baby is rear-facing, his entire body is better supported by the shell of the car seat, says Durbin.
"A rear-facing child safety seat does a better job of supporting the head, neck and spine of infants and toddlers in a crash, because it distributes the force of the collision over the entire body," says Durbin
"Parents often look forward to transitioning from one stage to the next, but these transitions should generally be delayed until they're necessary, when the child fully outgrows the limits for his or her current stage," adds Durbin.
For larger children, a forward-facing seat with a harness is safer than a booster, and a belt-positioning booster seat provides better protection than a seat belt alone until the seat belt fits correctly, he says.
"The 'age two' recommendation is not a deadline, but rather a guideline to help parents decide when to make the transition," stresses Durbin. "Smaller children will benefit from remaining rear-facing longer, while other children may reach the maximum height or weight before two years of age."