Airplane Seating Requirements Could Mean More Infant and Toddler Deaths

Injury prevention experts say requiring parents to buy a ticket and bring a safety seat for young children on airplanes could actually result in more deaths.

The Federal Aviation Administration is planning to ban the practice of children younger than 2 years old sitting in their parents' laps. Instead the parent would have to purchase a ticket and use a child-restraint seat like those found in automobiles.

"Researchers at Harborview and the University of California, San Francisco, looked at the potential benefits and costs of such a policy. They considered the number of lives that might be saved and the number of families who might decide to drive rather than fly if the cost of a child's airline ticket became a significant economic factor.

They found that the mandatory use of child-restraint seats on airlines would prevent 0.4 child deaths per year in the U.S. The number of deaths that could be prevented by use of child-restraint seats is limited because the number of deaths of unrestrained young children in survivable crashes is already low. According to the FAA's estimates, child-restraint seats could save five deaths in 10 years.

The researchers found that car deaths among children in this age group would actually exceed air crash deaths if 5-10 percent of the parents decided to drive instead of fly. The group looked at data on the relative risks of airline and motor vehicle travel based on the distance traveled and the number of airline takeoffs and landings.

"A policy requiring child-restraint seat use on aircraft is likely to lead to a small net increase in death and injuries unless the cost of complying with the policy is low enough that fewer than 5 to 10 percent of families with young children switch from air to car travel," the researchers concluded. "Even ignoring the possibility of increased car crash deaths, the small magnitude of potential benefit per young child makes the cost per life saved high unless the cost for young children to fly is close to zero. If the average round-trip cost per young child were $200, it would cost $1.28 billion for each life saved."

The research was conducted by UW Pediatrics Professors Brian Johnston and David Grossman at Harborview's Injury Prevention and Research Center and Thomas Newman of the University of California, San Francisco. Their findings are reported in the October 2003 issue of The Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

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