Death rate in accidents is high for Hispanic children
WASHINGTON - While child safety-seat use in general is at an all-time high, the message to keep kids buckled up has not taken hold in Hispanic communities, where cultural differences and lack of understanding about seat belt laws are leading to higher death rates.
As the U.S. Latino population grows, federal officials are working to teach Hispanics about the benefits of child safety seats.
A program, "Corazon de mi vida," or "You are the center of my life," has distributed child safety seats in Hispanic communities. The program, a collaboration between the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the San Antonio-based National Latino Children's Institute, is a start in breaking down the cultural barriers that have led to more deaths among Hispanic children than non-Hispanic white children.
"We're having to totally educate this community, totally change this behavior not just because you're going to get a ticket but because you will save your child's life," said program director Irene Rodriguez.
Julio Rios, who supervises Hispanic programs for Child and Family Services of West Michigan, Inc., said immigrants are often surprised to learn every state requires infants to be placed in child seats. Many come from countries with no such requirement. Even those that do require seat belts, such as Ecuador and Honduras, rarely enforce the law, Rios said.
"They are new to the area and they don't know the law here," said Rios, who is counseling a Hispanic family involved in a severe car accident. "Information isn't available in a language they can understand. Agencies need to be aware of the need to educate them."
Many new parents of all races and ethnicities believe, wrongly, that safety seats cost hundreds of dollars, Rodriguez said. She noted that a good safety seat can be as little as $40. Even when parents have safety seats, she said, the vast majority use them incorrectly.
Rodriguez said her program appeals to the importance of family in Hispanic culture and uses traditional rhymes and riddles to help parents remember to buckle children in the back seat.
The program also combats beliefs that endanger children. For example, Rodriguez said, many Hispanic mothers are taught to hold children in their laps, "not throw them in the back seat and ignore them." Many also believe that an auto accident is God's will and that they shouldn't interfere, she said.
The extent of the problem is difficult to quantify. Overall, a survey by the highway safety agency found 99 percent of infants and 94 percent of 1- to 3-year-olds were in safety seats in 2002.
While it doesn't track traffic deaths by race or ethnicity, previous studies have found a marked increase in traffic deaths of Hispanic children when compared with non-Hispanic whites.
Federal officials often quote a 1998 study that showed Hispanic children aged 5-12 are 72 percent more likely to die in a traffic accident than non-Hispanic whites of the same age.
The study was done by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Institute spokesman Russ Rader said no updated numbers have been released since then.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that motor vehicle accidents were the leading cause of death for Hispanics ages 1-44 in 2000 It said the number of Hispanic children from newborn to 19 killed in vehicle accidents jumped 10.8 percent, from 1,006 to 1,115, between 1999 and 2000. Among non-Hispanic white children, deaths went from 5,413 to 5,412.
Advocates at the local level also report more fatalities. A recent head-on collision in the Houston area killed six members of a Hispanic family, including three children who weren't wearing seat belts. The body of an 18-month-old girl was found in her mother's lap.
"This hasn't been a priority," Rodriguez said. "You have to hit the note that they should do this because they love their children."