It's long been a vexing challenge for road safety advocates: how to increase the use of child safety restraints and seat belts among African Americans and Hispanics.
A new study by researchers at the University of Michigan shows there's still work to do: The study, published last month in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, finds that black and Hispanic infants and toddlers are unrestrained at rates 10 times those of white children; among older children, there's a two-fold difference.
An 8-year-old, church-based, family-focused initiative by Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and automaker Toyota is helping make a dent. The program, Buckle Up for Life, works through churches to overcome cultural, educational and economic barriers to restraint use by minorities.
Over a six-week period, people are taught the safety implications of not buckling up and restraining their children. They can get free car seats, and experts help install them properly. Restraint usage at Cincinnati-area churches jumped significantly after the program was implemented, according to studies by the hospital and Toyota.
The program is offered in churches in Cincinnati, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Houston and Las Vegas, and there are plans to expand this year to Philadelphia and Orange County, Calif., and to other cities next year. More than 45,000 people have completed the program, and more than 20,000 child seats have been distributed, says Patricia Pineda, group vice president at Toyota Motor North America.
Minorities are not the only Americans who have troubling issues with vehicle restraint, particularly involving children.
The University of Michigan study found that few parents keep their children in rear-facing seats until age 2, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Also, many parents allow children 12 and younger to sit in the front seat, instead of the rear, as recommended by safety experts.
Those trends are especially troubling, because motor vehicle crashes are the top killer of children ages 1-12 in the USA, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Though seat belt use nationally has risen to 84%, usage is lower than the national average for African Americans and Hispanics. A study by the NHTSA in 2007 found that many blacks and Hispanics had negative attitudes about seat belts, and more than half of those surveyed said seat belts are "just as likely to harm you as help you."
Sol Villanueva, 20, of Erlanger, Ky., near Cincinnati, says she first learned the importance of child restraint use in 2006 when her parents took her and her little brother to Cristo Rey Church in Erlanger. She says she recently took her son, Adrian, 2, back to the church for a refresher and a child seat.
"They tell you about how kids go flying through the window" if they're not restrained, Villanueva says. "They show videos of people having accidents because they didn't place their children in the proper seat. Those were kind of scary."
This is not the first community-based approach to increasing vehicle restraint use among minorities. For example, seat belt use among African Americans increased nationally from 51% in 1996 to 77% in 2002. That growth was due partly to the efforts of groups such as the NAACP, the National Urban League, the National Council of Negro Women, Meharry Medical College and the Congress of National Black Churches, among others.
"This is not some failing of a particular race," says Victor Garcia of Cincinnati Children's Hospital, a co-founder of Buckle Up. "What it is is African Americans and Hispanics are disproportionately in lower socioeconomic groups."
Among the factors that Garcia says contribute to lack of restraint use:
-- Economic reasons. "Many parents were simply not able to buy a car seat," he says. In addition, parents often owned older model vehicles that had no seat belts or had improperly functioning ones.
-- Educational factors. "Not everybody you think should be aware is aware of the importance of seat belts," says Garcia, founding director of trauma services at his hospital. In the setting of their church, people are given information about vehicle restraints, sometimes by people who've lost loved ones who were not restrained.
-- Cultural reasons. Some minority families have no history of using seat belts or child safety seats.
In addition, Garcia says, "among African Americans, there was a sense of predeterminism. 'If God is going to take you, he's going to take you.' But we shared with people that God helps those who help themselves."