China lost almost three times as many children in car accidents as the U.S. last year, even though it has fewer than half the number of vehicles.
The government increased penalties this year for failing to fasten seat belts or using a mobile phone while driving. The next step: getting parents to install child-safety seats in a country where only about one in 100 cars have them. The World Health Organization says the seats, which reduce stress to the neck and spinal cord in a crash, can cut deaths by 70 percent.
“It’s completely crazy to put babies in cars without using child seats,” Frederic Banzet, chief executive officer of Paris-based PSA Peugeot Citroen’s Citroen brand, said in an interview in Beijing.
China’s health ministry agrees. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, an agency under the ministry overseeing public health awareness, will start the country’s first national campaign to encourage the use of child seats at the end of this year, starting in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.
The center plans to hold talks at kindergartens and primary schools, conduct prenatal workshops at hospitals and work with doctors doing home visits to educate new parents on the benefits and correct use of the seats.
The campaign will run until 2015 and the agency is counting on the protective instincts toward China’s “little emperors” - - the pampered only offspring under the country’s one-child policy -- to spur a change in behavior.
“It is time for us to do something,” said Duan Leilei, a trained doctor who specializes in researching injury prevention at the CDC. “Chinese parents literally will do anything they can for their only child. It should be much easier to get them to use booster seats once they know how important it is, than to say belt up or don’t use mobile phones while driving.”
With the number of vehicles estimated to surge almost threefold to 240 million by 2020, promoting child seats is a “low-hanging fruit” that could reap significant reductions in deaths and serious injuries, said Wu Yiqun, vice head of ThinkTank Research Center for Health Development, a non-governmental body that has been advocating their use.
China is taking the first steps toward making the use of booster seats mandatory, which would bring it in line with the more than 50 jurisdictions in the world that enforce their use.
The China Automotive Technology and Research Center, a government-affiliated body in charge of drafting policy for the auto industry, released a report in June concluding that conditions are ripe for enforcing the use of safety seats.
Last year, 18,500 children under the age of 14 died in traffic accidents in China, making it the leading cause of death for the age group, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a research body under the country’s State Council, or cabinet. WHO estimated global road deaths at more than 1.2 million a year, with more than 90 percent in developing economies, according to a 2009 report. As many as 50 million people are injured, it said.
Public awareness in China of child-safety seats is low.
About 40 percent of parents put their children in the front without a safety seat, while 43 percent said they held on to their kids while in the car, according to a survey conducted by the academy.
Automakers such as Volkswagen AG are also helping promote the adoption of the seats in China.
The German automaker has said it will donate 5,000 safety seats in China as the first step of a campaign on boosters. The company will also start manufacturing the seats in the country, according to Weiming Soh, VW’s sales head for China.
Eugene Meng, 36, isn’t waiting for a law to be passed to use a child seat.
The marketing executive in Beijing ordered one from Germany costing 2,800 yuan ($460) after his 10-month-old daughter hurt herself when she was thrown against the back of the driver’s seat. The toddler had been sitting in the back on her mother’s lap when Meng braked to avoid a collision.
“She cried so hard that I didn’t dare to take her out for any more rides until we got a safety seat,” he said. “Now when I see parents putting babies in the car without using safety seats, I wish I had the ability to stop them.”