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Ill-Fitting Children's Seat Belts Common in U.S., Study Finds

FRIDAY, Nov. 18 (HealthDay News) -- A new study finds that many American children aged 4 to 9 use an improperly fitting seat belt when they ride in cars -- a practice that could prove deadly.

University of Michigan researchers looked at a 2007 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration survey of nearly 900 drivers. Thirty-seven percent of the drivers said that their 4- to 9-year-old passengers use seat belts and more than three-quarters of those drivers said the seat belts did not fit these young passengers.

Improper shoulder belt position was reported in 44 percent of cases while improper lap belt position was reported in 62 percent of cases.

"At least one improper belt position was reported by 78 percent of drivers of 4- to 6-year-old children, 77 percent of 7- to 8-year-old children and 79 percent of 9-year-old children," the study authors reported in the November issue of the journal Academic Pediatrics.

Despite the high frequency of improper lap and shoulder belt positions for these children, many drivers don't bother to use size-appropriate child restraint systems such as car seats and booster seats, the researchers noted.

"Many parents may not even be aware of proper seat belt positioning and may not understand the serious and potentially permanent injuries that can result from improper belt fit," Dr. Michelle Macy, a clinical lecturer of emergency medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School and a pediatrician at the U-M C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, said in a university news release.

Shoulder belts should fit across the middle of a child's shoulder, not touching the neck. Lap belts should lie flat on top of the thighs, not higher up on the abdomen, according to recommendations from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Macy said height is a better indicator than age of when a child can switch from a booster seat to a seat belt. Children should be at least 57 inches -- the average height of an 11-year-old -- before they stop using a booster seat.

"Those parents relying on a seat belt to protect children under 9 years old are jumping the gun by two or more years," Macy warned.

However, no state laws currently require kids over 8 years old to use booster seats in the car, even though they would benefit from it, the authors noted in the news release.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about child passenger safety.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCES: November 2011, Academic Pediatrics; University of Michigan Health System, news release, Nov. 11, 2011

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