Inattention and driving alone with child passengers heighten crash risk

Globally, a significant share of children’s accidental deaths occur while they are passengers in a car. A doctoral thesis by Ida Maasalo looks into the factors underlying such car crashes.

The World Health Organization estimates that 140,000 children die in road traffic crashes every year.

In high-income countries, a significant proportion of children’s traffic-related deaths have occurred to child passengers travelling in vehicles, but this is also the case in middle-income countries, where child passengers’ deaths are an emerging issue as motorisation increases. Cognitive scientist Ida Maasalo posits that in support of effective measures, investment in research is essential.

“Traditionally, road safety studies and efforts relating to child passengers have focused on how to mitigate crash consequences using safety seats. In addition to that, working to prevent crashes in the first instance is important,” Maasalo says.

Maasalo investigated the topic at the University of Helsinki’s Traffic Research Unit, utilising statistics on fatal traffic accidents in Finland and the United States. Currently she works as a planner at the Finnish Road Safety Council.

Distraction and tiredness pose a risk

Globally, men cause the majority of fatal car crashes. Underlying these accidents is often risk-taking behaviour, such as intoxication and speeding. However, according to Maasalo, the driver is more than twice as often a woman than a man in fatal crashes with only small children as passengers.

“These cases were rarely associated with clear risk behaviour. In spite of responsible driving, the risk of accident can increase if a child is drawing the driver’s attention away from the traffic. Another background factor that was more common in crashes among drivers with child passengers than those driving without children was tiredness.”

Maasalo believes the importance of attentiveness in traffic should be emphasised to drivers transporting children, in addition to which they should be made more aware of the effect of fatigue on driving ability.

Two adults in the car are better than one

The study showed that the risk of causing a crash for drivers with children as passengers was lower when another adult was in the vehicle. As a probable explanation, Maasalo offers the fact that the other adult can assist in taking care of the children. Based on the findings, it was more common for women than men to drive alone with children. Maasalo points out that, based on the results, men are most often appointed as drivers when the whole family is in the car.

“Inexperienced drivers in particular should be urged to have another adult as a passenger when driving with a small child, as inexperienced drivers can be more susceptible to disturbances caused by children.”

Moreover, the study demonstrated that, in the case of inexperienced drivers, the risk of serious crashes was also heightened by the fact that they more often drove older vehicles and did not use appropriate safety equipment.

“Safe mobility among young parents in particular should be promoted. It would also be advisable to highlight the ease of use of other transport modes, such as public transport,” Maasalo says.

“The findings can be used to promote traffic safety among parents increasingly effectively and plan messaging, materials and training better suited to the needs of the target group. Road safety affects us all, and adults are responsible for children’s safety.”

Information about the thesis

Ida Maasalo’s doctoral thesis ‘Drivers with child passengers in fatal crashes: cautious but distracted?’ will be published in the Studies in Cognitive Science series. The thesis is also available in electronic form through the Helda repository.

Contact information

Ida Maasalo, MA
Phone: +358 50 472 1501
Twitter: @idamaasalo