July 18, 2011 -- Children driven by grandparents may be safer in a crash than children driven by parents, according to a new study.
Researchers looked at five years of crash data.
''Children in grandparent-driven crashes were at one-half the risk of injury as those in crashes driven by parents," says study researcher Flaura Koplin Winston, MD, PhD, director of the National Science Foundation Center for Child Injury Prevention Studies at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
Exactly why the kids fared better when their grandparents were at the wheel is not known, she says. Grandparents may drive more carefully with the grandchildren on board, she says.
Although the news on grandparent drivers is good, Winston says grandparents as well as parents can improve in their proper use of child safety seats.
The study is published online in the journal Pediatrics.
Safety of Grandparent Drivers: Study Details
Data for the study were drawn from the Partners for Child Passenger Safety Study. It was done from mid 1998 to November 2007.
For the study, researchers focused on children 15 or younger. They looked at insurance claims from the years 2003 to 2007 and did follow-up interviews by phone.
They looked at data from nearly 12,000 children involved in crashes, from minor to serious. Injuries were reported for 1,302 children. The researchers looked at who was driving. The median age of the grandparent drivers was 58 (half younger, half older). The median age of the parent drivers was 36.
Researchers looked at the number of children involved in parent-driven crashes and in grandparent-driven crashes. They found the overall risk of injury was 33% lower with grandparent drivers. When they adjusted for such factors as restraint use and model of car, they found the 50% reduction in injury risk with grandparent drivers.
"Although the crashes with grandparent drivers were 9.5% of the crashes we studied, they didn't represent 9.5% of the injuries," Winston says. They represented 6.6%.
Nearly all the children were reported to be restrained at the time of the crash, the researchers found. However, the grandparents were more likely to fall short on proper restraints, Winston says. For instance, they may have used a seat belt without a booster seat when a booster seat was needed.
Earlier this year, guidelines on child restraints were revised by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the American Academy of Pediatrics. The revised guidelines advise keeping children in each type of restraint for as long as possible according to recommendations before moving them up to the next seat type.
Grandparent Drivers: Perspectives
The lower crash rate with grandparent drivers may have several explanations, says Nancy Thompson, a spokeswoman for AARP. She reviewed the findings for WebMD.
Older drivers often ''self-regulate," she tells WebMD. "They choose not to drive at night, not to drive in heavy traffic," she says. They often stick to familiar routes. "That may be contributing to it," she says of the lower injury rate.
Thompson also points to recent research finding an overall decline in crash rates among older drivers compared to middle-aged drivers. For instance, a June 2010 report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found just that.
Leon James, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii who studies the psychology of driving, also reviewed the study. "It is unclear what the actual difference is due to," he says of the grandparent-parent driver differences.
He considers the differences found to be small, however. He also points out that it is not a general study about the safety of children transported by parents vs. grandparents, but only a look at what happens in crashes.
"The real importance of this research, in my view, is to show that we need to prepare for the arrival of the baby boomers into the grandparent generation," he says. "We need to train them adequately to understand the importance of using child restraints appropriately."
James offers another tip to parent and grandparent drivers: Be mindful of your driving style and language. Children pick up driving styles and attitudes early, he says.