Press Releases

2001 Releases

Study Examines Hazardous Seating of Children in Fatal Motor Vehicle Crashes

For immediate release:  August 10, 2001 

Boston, MA A study of fatal automobile crashes by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis shows that more children are being seated in the rear, where the risk of fatality is approximately one third lower than in the front. Still, drivers continue to seat a significant number of children in the front. The study, led by Eve Wittenberg, is published in the current edition of Pediatrics (

The study examined more than 28,000 fatal crashes between 1990 and 1998 and found that the proportion of vehicles carrying children aged 12 and under in the front seat declined over that time period from 42 percent to 31 percent. In general, protective seating choices were made more often for children six and under than for those between seven and 12. The study also found that when a child was the only passenger, the child was five times more likely to be seated in the front than when a child was in a vehicle with additional passengers.

There was also a decline in the number of children seated in the front of vehicles with passenger-side air bags. These air bags started to become common in 1996. Between 1996 and 1998, the chance that a child would be seated in the front of a car equipped with dual air bags decreased by approximately 50 percent, compared with vehicles without air bags or with only a driver-side air bag.

The study notes that public information campaigns and media attention in the mid-1990s helped raise public awareness of the safety advantages of placing children in the rear seat, particularly in vehicles with passenger-side air bags. "The association between the presence of air bags in a vehicle and decreased likelihood of front-seating suggests that drivers have paid attention to the hazard air bags pose to children," the authors write.

The study also found that:

  • Children six and under traveling in passenger cars were four times more likely to be seated in the front than children six and under riding in vans and SUVs. 
  • Women were about four times more likely than men to seat children six and under in the front. 
  • Children of all ages traveling in older vehicles were more likely to be seated in the front than those traveling in newer vehicles, at a rate of three percent for each year of difference in the age of the vehicle. (For example, a child in a 1993 vehicle would be 15 percent more likely to be seated in the front than a child in a 1998 vehicle.)
The authors conclude that, despite improvements, "…a significant proportion of vehicles involved in fatal crashes still show children placed at greater safety risk by virtue of their seating location."

Wittenberg co-authored the report with Sue Goldie and John D. Graham while she was with the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, which funded the work. She is now at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute’s Center for Outcomes and Policy Research.

For further information, please contact:

Eve Wittenberg, Ph.D.
Harvard School of Public Health
677 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
Phone: 617-632-5302

David Ropeik
Director of Risk Communication
Harvard Center for Risk Analysis
Phone: 617-432-6011