Study on Children Shows the Downside of Pickups

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I've never understood the allure of driving a pickup truck.

Sure, if you're a construction worker or a farmer or need to tow a large boat, owning one makes sense. But it puzzles me that so many people use compact pickups as family vehicles.

It seems as if the auto industry's marketing wizards have convinced consumers that tooling around in a compact pickup is about as cool as you can get. And for some it is a matter of economics--small pickups are less expensive than most cars.

But using them as family vehicles can be dangerous, according to the findings of a new study released by Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn.

Children riding on the rear fold-down jump seats in compact extended-cab pickups are nearly five times as likely to be injured in a crash than children in the back seats of other vehicles, the two-year study found.

"Parents should not be buying these vehicles as a family car," said Dr. Dennis Durbin, a pediatric emergency room physician and the study's coauthor and principal investigator, referring to compact extended-cab pickups.

The study comes as the popularity of such trucks is growing: 83.2% of small pickups sold last year had extended cabs, up from 57.2% in 1998.

The rear seats in these trucks, Durbin said, present "unique hazards, including a small rear compartment, side-facing jump seats and the limitation of a lap-only safety belt."

(Four-door crew cab trucks have rear bench seats and all required safety features, including shoulder and lap belts, so the risk of injury is not as great as in the compact extended-cab models.)

Among children hurt in compact extended-cab pickups, the most common and disturbing injuries identified in the study were to the head. They ranged from concussions to serious brain injury.

Children in the study also had spinal cord and abdominal injuries, serious chest injuries and fractured ribs, arms and legs. One 10-year-old boy died as a result of a spinal cord injury.

Eron Shosteck, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said auto makers "are very specific that these compact extended pickup trucks are not meant to be used as family vehicles." Dealers, he said, should not be representing such trucks as family vehicles.

The fold-down auxiliary seats "are only meant to be used temporarily--for example, ferrying construction workers around a site," Shosteck said.

"If there's an emergency and a child does have to ride," he said, "they need to be in the front seat, strapped in, or in a child seat" with the passenger-side air bag turned off.

Despite such assurances, it seems the trucks are being marketed as family vehicles as well as work vehicles.

After checking out a popular Ford Ranger extended-cab pickup at a dealership, I can't imagine that those fold-down seats--about the size of a large dinner plate--were designed to hold construction workers.

A salesman assured me that families take their children in the truck and said that he was unaware of concerns about putting young children in these seats.

Particularly disconcerting is the fact that the small fold-down seats are exempt from safety testing, because auto makers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration consider them auxiliary, nonstandard seats.

So children are riding in seats that have never been safety tested and cannot accommodate a child safety seat.

The study's authors have asked NHTSA officials to begin requiring safety testing on such seats.

"This is the first real-world data available for NHTSA to evaluate

"I am the father of three small children, and I can't imagine going out and purchasing this vehicle to transport my family," he said. "There simply is not enough room [in the rear compartment] for the head to move in the event of a crash ... and the padding in the compartment space is insufficient to minimize the risk of a head injury."

The study was part of continuing research conducted by Partners for Child Passenger Safety, a collaboration that includes the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. and the University of Pennsylvania.

Physicians and researchers compiled and analyzed data from accidents that occurred between December 1998 and November 2000. The accidents involved 7,192 vehicles and 11,335 children-- 1,356 of whom were injured.

Durbin said that although auto makers may decry the use of small trucks as family vehicles, there "is sometimes a disconnect" between the corporate message and what is said in the showroom.

That's a problem he would like the industry to address, he said, noting: "Auto dealers are in a very unique position to provide safety information to families with children."

Let's hope auto makers and NHTSA officials take the warning seriously.

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Jeanne Wright cannot answer mail personally but responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: jeanrite@aol.com.

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