2003 Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Survey: Child Car Seat Report


The 2003 Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Survey (MVOSS) was the fifth in a series of biennial national telephone surveys on occupant protection issues conducted for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Data collection was conducted by the firm Schulman, Ronca, & Bucuvalas, Inc. (SRBI), a national survey research organization. The survey employed two questionnaires, each administered to a randomly selected national sample of approximately 6,000 persons age 16 and older (with younger ages over-sampled). Interviewing began January 8, 2003 and ended March 30, 2003.

This report presents the survey findings pertaining to child restraints and child occupant protection. The data are weighted to yield national estimates. Readers are cautioned that some subgroup analyses are based on small numbers of cases. Technical information on confidence intervals is presented in Appendix A so that readers may judge the precision of sample estimates. A full description of the methodology, and the questionnaires, is presented in a separate report (Volume 1).

Seating Position Of Children Age 12 and Younger

  • Usual Seating Location Of Children Age 12 And Younger. For safety reasons, NHTSA and other organizations maintain that children age 12 and younger should ride in the back seat of the motor vehicle. Among drivers who lived with one or more children in this age range, most indicated that the youngest child typically rode in the back when riding with them with 63% saying the child never rode in the front seat in the past 30 days and 12% claiming it occurred just a few times. Children were more likely to sit in the front seat if the child was older, if there was no frontal passenger air bag in the respondent’s primary vehicle, and if the respondent lived in a rural area.

  • Change From A Year Ago In Youngest Child’s Seating Position. Slightly more than half (53%) of children ages 1 to 12 were reported less likely now than a year ago to ride in the front seat. Another 27% were thought to be just as likely as they were a year ago to ride in the front, while 14% were considered more likely now than a year ago to ride in the front.

  • Reasons Why Child Is More/Less Likely To Ride Up Front. The most frequently given reasons why children were more likely to ride up front were that the child was older or bigger (34%), there was no other place for the child in the vehicle (18%), and the child preferred the front (14%). The most often given reasons why children were less likely to ride up front were that it was safer in back (46%) and the danger from air bags (20%).

Transporters Of Young Children Under Age 9

  • Driving A Young Child Not In Household. About half of all drivers had driven a motor vehicle in the past year with a child under the age of 9 as a passenger, but most of these (29%) did not actually live with a child in that age range. If drivers had transported children under age 9 but did not live with the children, their frequency of driving young children tended to be low: 52% said they did this only a few days a year and 32% said they did it a few days a month.

  • Relationship To Young Child Not In Household (Drivers Who Did Not Live With A Young Child That They Drove). Most often, the driver transporting a child not living in the household was a grandparent (43%). When asked the frequency they drove young children, grandparents tended to report a greater amount compared to other relatives.

2003 Car/Booster Seat Use

  • Parent/Caregiver Analytic Group. The survey selected a subgroup of drivers to ask detailed questions about children’s use of child car seats, designated “parents/caregivers.” These were: (a) parents of children under age 9 (usually parents living with the child, but also cases of parents not living with the child but who drove the child at least on occasion in the past year), and (b) non-parents living with children under age 9 who at least on occasion drove with them.

  • Frequency Of Child Car Seat Use. Parents/caregivers usually said either that the selected child used a car seat “all of the time” (60%) or else never used a car seat (32%). If the child never used a car seat, it usually was because the child had graduated to safety belt use. More than 90% of children under 40 pounds in weight reportedly used car seats (including booster seats) “all of the time.” Discontinuation of car seat use by most children occurred by 6 years of age.

  • Type Of Car Seat By Age. Children should ride rear facing until at least 20 pounds and one year of age. Children who reach 20 pounds before one year of age should ride rear facing in a child safety seat recommended at a higher weight. Most infants who used car seats (72%) did ride in a rear facing position. But 20% reportedly rode in front facing child safety seats. Front facing child safety seats predominated among one-year-olds (87% of those using car seats), two-year-olds (89%), three-year-olds (83%), and four-year-olds (64%). Booster seats accounted for 13% of car seat users among three-year-olds, and then nearly tripled to 35% at age 4. After age 4, booster seats became the predominant child restraint used by children, though the percentages exaggerate booster seat use because of the far fewer children past age 5 using any type of child seat.

  • Usual Location In Vehicle Where Child’s Car Seat Is Placed. The vast majority of parents/caregivers (94%) stated that the child usually sat in the back when riding in a car seat in a vehicle that the parent/caregiver was driving. This was true regardless of whether the child used a rear facing infant seat (93%), a front facing toddler seat (96%), or a booster seat (91%). If there was a frontal passenger air bag in the respondent’s primary vehicle, then 97% of children in car seats usually rode in the back.

  • Safest Perceived Location To Place A Child’s Car Seat. Among parents/caregivers who drove a child that used a car seat, almost all (99%) considered the back seat the safest location to place a child car seat in a vehicle. One percent incorrectly believed the front seat was the safest.

  • Child Car Seats In Vehicles With Air Bags. Parents/caregivers who drove a child that used a car seat were asked if they thought it was safe to place a rear facing car seat in the front seat of a vehicle having a frontal passenger air bag. The correct answer is no, because it could place the child in the air bag’s path, with the force of impact being too great for the child. Most parents/caregivers (92%) said it was unsafe while 3% considered it safe.

  • Acquisition Of Car Seat. Most car seats (92%) were obtained new; less than one-in-ten (7%) were acquired used. More than three-fourths of car seats (77%) were purchased, while 20% were acquired as a gift or loaner from a relative or friend.

  • Mailing Back Car Seat Registration Cards. Almost three-quarters (73%) of parents/caregivers who said they obtained the car seat new also said that a registration card came with the seat. Of these, 53% mailed back the card.

  • Source Of Information. Of several information sources read by the interviewers, parents/caregivers who drove a child that used a car seat most often said that they had heard about the need to use car seats from books or articles (61%), from family or friends (60%), or from TV or radio (59%).

  • Ease Of Attaching Car Seat To Vehicle. Parents/caregivers reported that they had relatively little difficulty installing their children’s car seats regardless of the type of seat. Nearly two-thirds (62%) said it was very easy to attach the car seat to the vehicle they usually drove; 31% considered it somewhat easy. However, 31% of parents/caregivers acknowledged that they had in the past driven with the child in the car seat and later found the car seat was not securely attached. Most often, respondents said they learned how to attach the child car seat to the vehicle by reading the instructions (71%), usually from the owner’s manual.

  • Frequency Car Seat Moved To Another Vehicle. Transfer of car seats from one vehicle to another occurs with regularity for some parents/caregivers. One-in-eight respondents (12%) said they move the child car seat from one vehicle to another at least a few days a week. An additional 26% do so a few days a month.

  • LATCH System. In 2003, a series of questions was added to the survey to assess knowledge and use of the new attachment system called LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children). LATCH is intended to make safety seat installation easier by providing a means of attaching the car seat to the vehicle seat without having to use the vehicle safety belt. LATCH child safety seats have a lower set of attachments that connect to bars (“anchors”) in the vehicle seat of LATCH-equipped motor vehicles, and most of the child seats have an upper tether to attach to a top anchor in the vehicle. LATCH is required in passenger vehicles and child safety seats manufactured after September 1, 2002, although it was available in some models before that date. Thus awareness and use of the LATCH system at this time is in its early stages. Among parents/caregivers of children that were using child car seats, 27% had heard of LATCH. A few others were aware there had been a change in the way car seats are designed to attach to motor vehicles, but were unfamiliar with the term LATCH. About one-quarter (26%) of those who had heard of LATCH said they had used the LATCH system. In general, parents/caregivers of children using infant or toddler seats were still using the vehicle safety belt to attach the car seat to the vehicle (97%). However, slightly more than one-half (53%) of parents/guardians of children using front facing toddler seats reported that the seat had an upper tether, which they usually reported using. In cases where respondents said they did not use the tether on all trips, most often they indicated that it was because there was no place in the vehicle to which they could attach it (50%).

  • Ease Of Buckling Child In Car Seat. As with installing the car seat in the vehicle, most parents/caregivers considered it easy to properly buckle the child into the car seat. Almost all parents/caregivers answered either that it was very easy (71%) or somewhat easy (27%).

  • Use Of Safety Seat Inspection Stations. Inspection stations are places where parents and other caregivers can go to have trained technicians check whether they are correctly installing the child seat in their vehicle and properly buckling their child into the seat. More than one-in-five (22%) of the parents/caregivers driving a child who uses a car seat said they had gone to an inspection station. Most often, it was sponsored by local police (38%) or fire or rescue units (23%). About one-in-five (21%) parents/caregivers who had gone to an inspection station indicated that the technician had found something wrong with how they attached the seat or buckled in their child. However, 36% of parents/caregivers said the person checking the car seat suggested they do something differently in how they attach the seat. Most often the suggestion was to make the seat belt that secures the child seat to the vehicle tighter. Most (70%) said that they had been given the opportunity at the inspection station to attach the seat and buckle in their child under the guidance of the technician. And in the majority of cases (52%) the respondent was the last person to adjust the car seat.

  • Frequency That Persons Outside Household Drive Child Who Uses Car Seat. Parents/caregivers who lived with a child that used a car seat were asked if the child had ridden in a vehicle driven by someone outside the household in the past month. More than four-in-ten (45%) answered that this had occurred. Children were transported on a far less regular basis by non-household members compared to the parents/caregivers who lived with the children. When asked the identity of the driver outside the household who transported the child in the past 30 days, parents/caregivers most often answered that it was a grandparent (45%) or a parent/step-parent (20%).

Reasons For Non-Use Of Car Seats

  • Children Who Use Car Seats, But Not All The Time. The reasons most frequently mentioned for non-use of car seats among part time users were that they were only going to be in the car a short time (50%), the seat was not available (41%), and the child did not like the seat (34%). Most children who were part time car seat users wore a safety belt when they were not in their car seat (83% “all the time”).

  • Children Who Never Use Car Seats. When asked the reason why the child never uses a car seat, the respondents usually answered that it was because the child was using a safety belt (94%) and was too big (85%). Yet when wearing a safety belt with a shoulder strap, 29% of the children had the belt cut across their face or neck on most trips, 25% usually put the shoulder belt behind the back, and 17% usually put the shoulder belt under the arm.

  • Age At Which Child Is Believed Ready To Begin Wearing Safety Belt. Parents/caregivers of children who did not use child safety seats at all leaned towards a slightly younger age than the user groups as the threshold point when a child is ready to begin wearing a safety belt. They most frequently gave age 5 as the transition point, compared to age 6 by parents/caregivers of part time and full time car seat users. Overall, 40% of the parents/caregivers of non-users gave an age of 5 or younger as the point when a child is ready to begin wearing a safety belt compared to 32% of the part time users and 31% of the full time users.
    Booster Seat Issues

Booster Seat Issues

  • Use Of Booster Seats. Booster seats are considered the appropriate restraint for most children roughly between the ages of 4 and 81. However, the data collected from the parents/caregivers showed only 21% of children in that age range using booster seats, with another 19% using front facing child safety seats. Booster seat usage peaked at ages 4 (29%), 5 (32%), and 6 (27%), and declined sharply thereafter.

  • Awareness Of Booster Seats. Most parents/caregivers (85%) had heard of booster seats, although 12% had not and 3% were unsure. Of those who were aware of booster seats, 60% said they had used them at some time when driving their child(ren). The most frequent age at which parents/caregivers started using booster seats with their child(ren) was age four (35%); the most frequent weight was 30-39 pounds (33%).

  • Most Important Reason To Use Booster Seats. About one-third of respondents said the most important reason for using a booster seat was to make the child safer (32%) and another third (34%) said it was to make the safety belt fit the child properly.

  • Concerns About Booster Seats. Among the parents/caregivers who had seen or heard of booster seats, over one-fifth (22%) had concerns about their safety and another 4% were unsure. When asked what concerns they had, the parents/ caregivers criticized them as loose fitting and unstable systems that would not adequately restrain the child in a crash.

  • Expected Restraint System After Outgrowing Current Seat. If the referent child in the survey at least on occasion rode in a child safety seat, then the interviewers asked the respondents if they expected the child to use “a different type of car seat, a safety belt, or something else” after outgrowing the current seat. Four-in-five children in rear facing seats were expected to move on to other safety seats (80%), although 16% expected the child to use safety belts. Expectations became more varied with front facing safety seats, as 67% said that the child would use a different seat or booster seat while 31% either answered that the child would graduate to safety belts or else that they did not know what would happen.

Attitudes Toward Enforcement Of Child Restraint Laws

  • Support For Enforcement. The public (age 16 and older) favors stringent enforcement of car seat laws. Almost three-in-five persons (59%) believed that the police should issue a ticket at every opportunity. Just as many (59%) believed the fine should be $50 or more. Indeed, more than one-third (36%) said the fine should be $100 or more.

  • Legal Requirements For Children Who Outgrow Car Seats. Ninety-four percent of persons age 16 and older agreed that children should be required by law to wear safety belts once they have outgrown car seats, while 3% disagreed. Those respondents who agreed that children should be required to wear safety belts after outgrowing car seats, or said it depended on the child’s age, were asked if there was an upper age limit beyond which children should not be required to wear safety belts. The vast majority (86%) rejected the notion of an upper age limit by saying that safety belt use should be required for all children (which equated to 82% of the total population age 16 and older).

Trends (1994-2003)

  • Children In Back. The 1998 survey introduced questions asking about the seating position of the youngest child in the household age 12 or younger. In 1998, 30% reportedly rode in the front seat on half or more of their trips with the respondent during the past 30 days. The figure dropped to 19% in 2003.

  • Change In Definition Of Parents/Caregivers. Criteria for defining parents/ caregivers were expanded for the 2000 survey in order to include all ages where booster seats are the recommended restraint system for children. Thus respondents entered the question series for parents/caregivers if there was a referent child under the age of 9, as opposed to under the age of 6 in the earlier surveys. As a consequence, 2000 and 2003 survey results came from a somewhat different subgroup than in 1994-1998, thereby affecting comparability of results. But since the majority of child restraint questions were asked only of parents or caregivers of children who used a car seat, and the 2003 survey showed that child car seat users were predominantly under the age of 6, the effect on survey results of the change in definition may have been negligible for most questionnaire items. Therefore, some trend data are presented.

  • Car Seat Use. Data collected from parents/caregivers suggested continued increase in child restraint use among children ages 2 to 5 (particularly ages 4 and 5), and children weighing 30-39 pounds. Restraint use among children under age 2, and children weighing less than 30 pounds has been consistently high.

  • Placement Of Child’s Car Seat. Parents/caregivers of children using car seats were asked the seating location of the child when riding with them. The percentage that said that the child is usually in the back seat when riding in a car seat has increased from 78% in 1994 to 94% in 2000 and 2003.

  • Safest Perceived Location For A Car Seat. Similar to the 1996, 1998 and 2000 surveys, almost all parents/caregivers in 2003 whose (referent) child used a car seat knew that the back seat was the safest location to place a child car seat in the vehicle (99% in 2003).

  • Child Car Seat In Vehicles With Air Bags. As in 1998 and 2000, 92% of parents/caregivers in 2003 whose referent child used a car seat were aware of the danger of placing a rear facing infant seat in the front seat of a vehicle having a frontal passenger air bag. A large jump in awareness occurred between the 1994 and 1996 surveys (from 56% to 88%).

  • Support For Enforcement. In 2003, 59% of the public believed that police should give a ticket at every opportunity for violations of car set laws. This was little changed from 2000 (58%).

  • Legal Requirements For Children Who Outgrow Car Seats. In each survey year, 94% of the public agreed that children who have outgrown child car seats should be required by law to wear safety belts when riding in a motor vehicle.

1NHTSA recommends that all children who have outgrown child safety seats should be properly restrained in booster seats until they are at least 8 years old, unless they are 4’9” tall.