Press Releases

2001 Releases

Harvard Study Shows Drivers are Placing Children in Rear Seat After Enactment of Law and Penalties

For immediate release: January 29, 2001

Boston, MA.-- A study by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis finds that a state law requiring children to ride in the rear seat of motor vehicles has been successful in getting drivers to place them there.

The study examined passenger seating in Rhode Island, the first state to pass such a law, and found that vehicles were 30 percent less likely to carry a child in the front seat one year after the law took effect compared with seating patterns just after the law was enacted. The study appears in the February issue of The American Journal of Public Health (

The Rhode Island law, which requires that children sit in the back and wear proper restraints, imposes fines of $30 for violation of the rear seating requirement and $150 for violation of the restraint requirement. The law was passed after research by Center Director John Graham and others showed that, nationwide, children aged 12 and under are 35 percent less likely to die in crashes if they are in the rear seat. Rear seating is even safer if the front seat is equipped with an airbag which, when deployed, can harm younger children.

Researchers first observed traffic in the Providence, R.I. area in 1997, just after the law was enacted but before it was publicized and enforced. They returned to the same locations one year later for a second set of observations. Similar monitoring was performed in Massachusetts, where no law had been passed.

In Rhode Island, in the observation just after the rear seating law took effect, 23.4 percent of vehicles carried at least one child in the front seat. A year later, only 16.4 percent of the vehicles in the study carried at least one child in the front. In Massachusetts, seating patterns remained the same.

Similar laws have subsequently been enacted or are under consideration in several states. The National Transportation Safety Board recommends that all states amend their laws to compel drivers to place children in the rear seats.

The lead author of the study, Dr. Maria Segui-Gomez, says, "The magnitude of the behavioral impact is modest, which suggests that vigorous enforcement, which has not occurred in Rhode Island, might achieve more complete compliance." She also notes that the study suggests that legislation imposing fines for non-compliance is more effective in getting kids to sit in the back than public information campaigns or educational efforts, both of which were in effect in both states at the time of the study.

Dr. Segui-Gomez, now at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, conducted the study when she was with the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis (HCRA). Part of The Harvard School of Public Health, HCRA is supported by funds from government, industry, and academia. Further information about the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis may be found at

For further information, please contact:

David Ropeik
Harvard Center for Risk Analysis
617 432-6011