ATLANTA (AP) -- Too big for child safety seats and too small for adult seat belts, children ages 4 to 8 face a unique risk of dying in accidents because drivers often leave them unrestrained and in the front seat, according to government researchers.
About 500 children in that age group die in car wrecks each year, according to a study of federal traffic fatality data released Thursday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The study found that from 1994 to 1998, 14,411 children ages 4 to 8 were involved in fatal car wrecks; 2,549 of them died. The report also found that more than two-thirds of the children killed in car accidents during that period were not wearing a safety restraint, and fewer than half -- 49 percent -- were in the back seat.
The National Transportation Safety Board recommends that children 12 and under ride only in the back seat. Studies show that keeping children in the back seat could cut deaths by a third, yet about a quarter of all kids routinely ride up front, the CDC said.
Children in the front seat also face injury risk from air bags and are more likely to suffer injury there than in the back.
The report's lead author, Steven Trockman of the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, likened the issue to a disease in which a vaccine goes unused. He said placing children in booster seats in the back seat wouldn't save every life, but would reduce the number of deaths.
''We have a known problem. We have a known vaccine for it,'' Trockman said. ''The vaccine is not getting to the children.''
The figures are discouraging because of substantial safety gains among toddlers in recent years, experts said.
''In general, parents just don't understand'' the problem, said Karen DiCapua, director of child passenger safety at the National SAFE KIDS Campaign.
''Once the child is 2 1/2 or 3, parents just jump at the chance to put them in the adult seat,'' she said.
The CDC recommends that children ages 4 to 8 use booster seats so that shoulder belts fit them securely between the neck and arm and the lap belt fits across the upper thighs. But only about 5 percent of the children killed in accidents were using a child booster seat.
Children must be 58 inches tall and weigh 80 pounds before they fit into adult seat belts, according to CDC-adopted guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Also, while all states have child-restraint laws, the CDC found wide gaps among the safety measures mandated for children ages 4 to 8.
No state requires the use of booster seats, and 19 states allow children to ride in the back seat without a restraint, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an Arlington, Va.-based research group funded by auto insurance companies.
Only 12 states prohibit the use of adult seat belts for children.
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