Car Safety Technology for Kids

kids in the back seat
Children should always sit in the back, but that's only the beginning of car safety for kids. Tetra Images / Getty

Most car safety technologies don’t care how old you are, or how big or small you are, or anything else about you, really. They either work, or they don’t, but it most cases they can have a pretty big impact on either saving your life or reducing the severity of injuries in the event of an accident. Some safety technologies, like traditional airbags, are actually dangerous for children, though, and others, like Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) are specifically designed to make cars safer for child passengers.

Of these essential safety technologies, features and systems for children, some, like LATCH, have been standard equipment for some time, so you only have to worry about them when buying a used car. Many newer technologies are only found in certain makes and models, though, which is why it’s still imperative to check out the relevant safety features even when buying a brand new car.

Keeping Kids Safe on the Road

Child safety has come a long way since the days when seat belts were optional equipment, or only available from the aftermarket, but it still has a long way to go. Some of the most vital safety technology and features are now standard equipment on all new passenger cars and trucks, while others are only available as optional equipment or in upgraded feature packages. Of course, the absolute most vital thing you can do to protect a child in your vehicle, aside from practicing safe driving habits, is to follow the letter of the law in terms of where the child sits and the restraints that are used.

Although the law differs from one location to another, according to the IIHS, every state, and the District of Columbia, in the United States has some form of child seat law. You can check your specific law to be safe, but the general rule of thumb is to always make sure that children under the age of 13 sit in the back seat and that appropriate car seats and boosters are used.

Some laws even apply to children under the age of 16, but the real issue, in terms of car safety, has to do with the height and weight of the child, so some children can safely ride in the front seat earlier, while many adults require additional safety technologies like smart airbags.

The Importance of LATCH

Seat belt restraints are some of the most important safety features out there, but they don’t always work so well with children. This is why young children have to ride in specialized car seats, which can sometimes be difficult to install. Since 2002, all new vehicles have come equipped with a safety feature called Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, or LATCH for short. This system essentially makes it faster, easier, and safer to install child safety seats without having to use the seat belts.

If you purchase a vehicle that was built for sale in the United States in or after the year 2002, then it will include the LATCH system. If you purchase an older used car, then you will have to rely on the seat belts to install car seats and boosters.

Seat Belts and Children

The lap belt is an essential safety device that has been required in all vehicles for decades, but studies have shown that shoulder belts, in conjunction with lap belts, provide greater protection than lap belts on their own.

This is true for children as well as adults, but very few vehicles included rear seat shoulder belts until recent years. Since young children should always sit in the back seat, even when using a booster or when they are tall enough to not use a booster, that means that they often don’t have the extra safety benefit added by the presence of a shoulder belt. New vehicles produced after the year 2007 are required to include both shoulder and lap belts in their back seats, which you may want to keep in mind when shopping for a used vehicle.

In addition to whether or not an older vehicle includes rear shoulder belts, you may want to consider the fact that some shoulder belts are adjustable.

These belts have an anchor point that can be slid up and down to accommodate the height of the passenger. If you look at a vehicle that doesn’t have adjustable shoulder belts, you should check to make sure that the shoulder belt isn’t too high for your child. If the belt crosses their neck, for example, instead of their chest, it could pose a severe hazard in the case of an accident.

Airbags and Children

Although children should always ride in the back seat whenever possible, there are situations where that simply isn’t an option, and some state laws even take that into account. For instance, some vehicles don’t have rear seats, and other vehicles have rear seats that you can’t install a child safety seat into. You may want to steer clear of those vehicles altogether if you plan on transporting children, but some vehicles include an airbag shut off switch to help reduce the danger. Since airbags can severely injure, or even kill, children, due to their relatively small heights and weights, it is absolutely imperative that your vehicle have an airbag shut off switch, or a smart airbag system, before you allow a child to sit in the front seat.

Other types of airbags can also have an effect on the safety of a child passenger, especially if the child is riding in the front seat:

  • Active head restraints are a type of airbag system that deploys from the headrest. When it is necessary for a teenaged child to ride in the front, this type of airbag can help in the event of an accident, since it is designed to inflate between the headrest and the passenger’s head, closing that distance and minimizing head movement.

  • Side impact airbags deploy between the door and the body of an occupant, and they can provide protection to passengers in both the front and rear seats. While these airbags can protect children, they aren’t always designed to, and they can even injure passengers who are “out of position,” which is a category that includes small children. Since more and more vehicles are equipped with side impact airbags each year, it’s important to check whether or not a vehicle has passed “out of position” tests if you have children.

Doors and Windows

Automatic door locks and child safety locks are both essential safety features that most vehicles have, but you shouldn’t ever just take them for granted. Automatic locks are designed to engage when the vehicle exceeds a specific speed, which is helpful if you ever forget to lock the doors. This technology dovetails nicely with child safety locks, which prevent the rear doors from being opened at all from the inside once they are locked. Severe injury, or even death, can occur if a child manages to open a door when the vehicle is in motion, which is why these technologies are so important.

Door windows also pose a safety hazard, in that injury or death can occur if any part of the body is trapped when a car window is closed. This is particularly likely when a vehicle has simple toggle switches to raise and lower the windows. Vehicles produced after 2008 come equipped with push/pull switches that are less likely to be activated on accident, while older vehicles often allow the driver to disable the passenger window toggles.

In addition to the protection offered by push/pull switches and driver-operated window disablers, some power windows come with an anti-pinch or auto-reverse feature. This feature includes pressure sensors that are activated if a window encounters resistance when closing, in which case the window will either stop or actually reverse itself and open up. This isn’t a standard feature, and it shouldn’t be relied upon as the sole means to prevent a child from becoming trapped in a closing automatic door window, but it is an additional means of protection that is sometimes available.

Transmission Shift Interlocks

Although it’s typically a bad idea to leave a child unsupervised with the key in the ignition, it does happen from time to time, and shift interlocks help prevent the child from accidentally shifting into neutral. If the vehicle is shifted into neutral, either intentionally or by bumping the shift lever, and the vehicle is on any kind of slope, it may roll into a person or object and cause property damage, personal injury, or even death.

Brake transmission shift interlocks are designed such that it is impossible to shift out of park without pushing down on the brake first. This is an especially useful feature for small children, since they are often too short to reach the brake pedal, even if they intentionally tried to shift out of park. Other interlocks require the press of a button, or even inserting a key or other similarly shaped object into a slot, to shift out of park if the ignition isn’t in the run position.

Child Safety Features and Technologies to Look For

If you’re in the market for a new or used car, here is a quick reference of some of the most important features and technologies to look for:

  • LATCH (standard since 2002)
  • Rear shoulder belts
  • Adjustable rear shoulder belt anchors
  • Airbag on/off switch
  • Smart airbags
  • Automatic door locks
  • Child safety locks
  • Push/pull window switches
  • Driver-operated window disabler
  • Anti-pinch automatic windows
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