News & Events

Driven to Distraction: Keeping Kids Safe In & Out of Vehicles


By Joanne Pallotta, Tufts Medical Center Correspondent 

Cars and kids can be a dangerous combination.  According to, in 2016 motor vehicle crashes were the number one cause of “unintentional death” among children ages one to 19.  

Leslie Rideout, PhD., FNP, Pediatric Trauma Nurse Coordinator, Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center says there is so much more we can all do to ensure the safety of children in and around motor vehicles. 

“We all have many competing demands that cause distraction during the course of our day,” Rideout says.  “It is important to know the safety laws and regulations in order to keep children safe.”  

One area where children are at great risk is in the lack of proper car restraints. In a recent study, the Kiwanis Pediatric Trauma Institute (KPTI) at Floating Hospital for Children looked at pediatric patients admitted to the hospital following a car crash over a 13 year period. Not surprisingly, of the 129 children assessed, they found only half of the children were properly restrained in the automobile. 

Fortunately, there are some simple steps parents can use to help kids stay safe. 

Car seat check up 

According to, 73% of car seats are not used or installed correctly.  The reasons vary:  parents are busy, overwhelmed, haven’t read the instructions or found the seats difficult to install.  

“I highly advise parents to get in touch with their local police or fire department to make sure the car seat (rear-facing, convertible, or booster) is installed correctly,” says Anne Keliher, Project Specialist for KPTI. 

There is no charge and it only takes a few minutes.  Keliher stresses the checkup should be done for every new seat.  

“Car seats are complicated,” says Keliher, but she says that manufacturers are making them easier to use and install. 

Car seat compromised 

Did you know that if a vehicle with a car seat inside is involved in a crash, that seat must be discarded -- even if there appears to be no damage to it?  Emergency personnel take no chances that the seat has been compromised.  The seats are always discarded by EMTs or by the emergency department staff. 

For families whose children receive care at Floating Hospital for Children, there is a program to replace these car seats and also provide car seats for families who may be unable to purchase one.  A nurse, social worker, or ER personnel can arrange for the patient to receive a car seat. 

And what about those expiration dates on the car seats? Keliher says, pay attention to them.  

“Safety engineers and manufacturers of car seats learn more and more each year about how to design a seat that is safe.  If you are using an old one, it may not incorporate the newest safety engineering” she says, adding that a car seat left in a hot vehicle or in the sun may have its materials deteriorate over time. 

Stick to it 

In case of a crash, a simple eye-catching sticker could make a big difference in the physical and emotional wellbeing of a child.  KPTI created the Car Seat Sticker program to identify a child and provide crucial contact and medical information to emergency personnel if a parent is unable to do so.  The bright yellow sticker attaches to a car seat in a visible area.  

“It can help facilitate better medical care and emotional support for the child and family,” says Keliher.  

These free stickers are often provided to various social service organizations and schools. They can also be obtained for distribution to families in your community by calling KPTI at 617-636-6381. 

School daze 

“Distracted driving and speeding are some of the biggest issues that cause children to be hurt by cars,” says Keliher. She points out, school bus pick up time and the start and end of school during the week can be most dangerous.  That’s when children, parents and other drivers aren’t always paying as much attention to traffic patterns and their surroundings, she says. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 10% of motor vehicle-related deaths to children do not happen in traffic.  They occur in places like driveways and parking lots where a driver cannot see kids.  Parents should always check in and around the car before moving and never depend on those vehicle cameras to spot a child. 

The hang up 

A teenager getting his or her license is a nerve-wracking time for parents.  The lack of experience is a big concern.  So, the thought of a cell phone distracting teens while they drive just adds to the anxiety.  

In Massachusetts, the law forbids teen drivers from using cell phones – no talking, no texting.  But, it doesn’t curb the temptation.  

There are more than a half dozen apps designed to allow a parent to control what can be done with a cell phone while their teen is in the driver’s seat.  Some of those apps can block calls and messages or even disable the device.  Learn about some of these apps at 

Slow down, get educated, be a model, and list it 

Just like surgeons and nurses at a hospital, Keliher and Rideout suggest parents adopt a mental or written checklist to go through every day.  They say it should include certain risk factors such as checking in and around the car, making sure a child is buckled in securely and never left inside a vehicle. 

Above all, they say, be a role model.  Buckle up.  Put down the phone.  Don’t let anyone or anything become a distraction. 

“Families try the best they can,” says Rideout.  “They want their children to be safe.  So, we support what they already do by enhancing it with what we know and providing these resources.” 

Posted May 2017 

The above content is provided for educational purposes by Tufts Medical Center. It is free for educational use. For information about your own health, contact your physician.