Grandma shouldn’t get such a bad rap. A study published this week found that kids were safer riding in a car with a grandparent behind the wheel than with Mom or Dad. Researchers evaluated data from crashes that occurred between Jan 2003 to November 2007. What they found defies my intuition: children were injured less with a grandparent-driver than with a parent-driver. The why behind the surprising finding may be harder to elucidate than the data itself. Researchers reviewed data collected on over 11,000 children involved in crashes with either a parent or a grandparent behind the wheel. Here’s what these prominent safety researchers found:

  • Children involved in crashes were driven by grandparents nearly 10% (9.5%) of the time. Yet those crashes resulted in only 6.6% of the injuries.
  • Although nearly all children were reported as restrained (in car/booster seat/seat belt), when in crash with a grandparent they weren’t as optimally restrained. This translates to mean that with grandparents, kids were not always in car seat/booster seat or seat belt properly. Child safety restraints are known to decrease likelihood of injury so using them correctly matters.
  • 25% of children were sub-optimally restrained when riding with Grandma/Grandpa. With parents, 19% of children were sub-optimally restrained.
  • Despite the increased imperfect restraint, children were injured less when with a grandparent-driver. Children were at 1/2 the risk of injuries from a crash when with a grandparent than compared to a crash with a parent. Hard to understand.

Okay–so let’s make sense of this. The zoom-out perspective is that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death in children over 3 years of age. And we also know that when using a child restraint properly, we dramatically reduce the likelihood a child is injured if in a crash…So, optimizing safety for children in a car is tantamount at at times (with Granny or with you). In optimizing safety, this data suggests that avoiding Grandma and Grandpa as drivers may not be an essential strategy. Although older driver age (over age 55 but especially over 65 years) increases likelihood of motor vehicle crashes, in this study, we found their driving may improve when with their precious cargo onboard.

Here’s What To Know About Grandparent Drivers:

  1. Grandparents were the drivers in 1 out of 10 crashes for children.
  2. In 2002-3, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) surveyed families in parking lots for child restraint misuse in 6 different states around the country. They found almost 73% of families were misusing the restraint. That means more children are improperly restrained than properly restrained! Surveyors reported that weaknesses included grandparents’ discomfort using a restraint, using an older restraint, and having children sit on grandparents’ laps.
  3. When adjusting driver gender, driver-restraint use (ie was Grandpa wearing a seat belt?), vehicle type and model year, and crash-scene characteristics, the data were stronger–meaning holding some things constant, children still appear even safer with Grandma/Grandpa than with a parent when involved in a crash.
  4. Don’t be fooled into backing off because of this data, you still need to be vigilant. Older age drivers (particularly over age 65) are at higher risk for crashes.

After reviewing this study and thinking about it, I couldn’t stop thinking of the role cell phones and/or texting may have played. One huge difference in the groups (parents versus grandparents) is our use of mobile devices. Although it wasn’t controlled for in this study, do you suspect kids were safer because grandparents were really tuning in and focusing when driving and not trying to text, talk, and drive at the same time like so many adults of parenting age? Did this focus reduce the likelihood of injury in a crash?

Here’s What To Do:

  • Review the 2011 new guidelines (text and VIDEO) for using car seats, booster seats, seat belts, and the back seat for children.
  • Review the Risks of Texting and Driving or watch this short video I made about the three types of distraction that occur when texting and driving.
  • Let the grandparents drive your kids but review safety ahead of time. Demonstrate and show they how to both install and put your child in the car or booster seat. Return to this from time to time–don’t be afraid to revisit safety issues as your child grows/switches seats/transitions to a seat belt only. Review and watch how your parents or in-laws get your children into the car over time. Plan ahead what you’ll say so you don’t feel intimidated talking with in-laws or your parents. I hear (and feel) over and over how hard it is to tell your parent or in-law how to do things…
  • Review new rules/safety guidelines with grandparents (ie children rear-facing until 2 years of age, in booster until 4 ft 9 inches tall, and kids only in back seat until 13 years of age). Hey send them a link to look at via email.

Then, plan a date night. Get out of the house and connect with your partner and friends. Specifically, let Grandma do the driving for your kids and use this data to relax a bit more.