WASHINGTON -- Americans are buckling up their children in the car in record numbers, but many remain at greater risk of death or injury because they ride in the front seat, the nation's chief auto safety regulator said Monday.
Twenty-nine percent of 4 to 7-year-olds sit in the front seat of their parents' vehicles, where they are more vulnerable in crashes, according to a government survey conducted last year. Parents placed 15 percent of infants with them up front and 10 percent of toddlers, aged 1 to 3.
"Youngsters are at greater risk of severe injury or death when they're involved in a crash while riding in the front seat," Dr. Jeffrey Runge, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said at a news conference.
"It is vitally important that all parents secure their children in the back seat," added Runge, an emergency room physician. "The back is always the safest place for kids to ride."
Inspectors monitoring auto safety habits at 1,100 intersections nationwide found record numbers of children are buckled up, either in infant and toddler seats or in lap and shoulder seat belts.
The highway safety agency said 99 percent of infants, 94 percent of toddlers, and 83 percent of 4 to 7-year-olds were restrained in passenger vehicles in 2002.
More than 1,700 children up to age 15 were killed in car crashes in 2001, according to government figures. An estimated 220,000 were hurt.
Placing children in the back seat can cut the risk of serious injury or death by nearly 40 percent, government and independent research shows.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, head-on crashes cause the greatest number of serious injuries. Those sitting in the back are farther from impact and have the soft part of the front seat in front of them instead of the windshield, mirrors and harder dashboard surfaces.
Another potential danger to children who ride in the front seat, according to experts, is the force of an inflating passenger-side airbag.
The National Safety Council's Air Bag and Seat Belt Safety Campaign reports that airbag-related child deaths have dropped 94 percent since 1996.
But advocates say they must boost their efforts, especially by reaching out to first-time parents and new buyers of vehicles that are equipped with airbags.