More Mississippi children die in car crashes each year, per capita, than in any other state in the country, according to a new report in the Journal of Pediatrics.
The state also led the nation in percentage of children in fatal accidents who were not properly restrained.
In Mississippi, the mortality rate in motor vehicle crashes is 3.23 children per 100,000. In Massachusetts, the motor vehicle mortality rate is just 0.25 children out of every 100,000.
In Mississippi 38 percent of these children were either not buckled into their seats or buckled in improperly. In contrast, only two percent of children in fatal car accidents were improperly restrained in New Hampshire, which has the lowest rate in the country.
Given how many kids are improperly buckled up in cars, the state’s high childhood fatality rate in car crashes should come as no surprise, according Tawny Basden, program manager of the Youth Highway Safety Program at Safe Kids Mississippi.
“Anyone unrestrained will be a human projectile no matter what the age,” Basden said. “If they’re not properly restrained, they’re leaving the vehicle at the rate the car was traveling (before the crash)”
“And if you have a rollover situation, then it’s a human washing machine,” she added. “One person not buckled up in the backseat has the potential to kill everyone in the car.”
But Basden said she’s optimistic that Mississippi will start to see a significant decline in these deaths over the next several years. In April, Gov. Phil Bryant signed “Harley’s Law,” which requires all passengers in a car to wear a properly fastened seat belt or be restrained in a car seat. Basden called this “a huge win for the state.”
“I feel it will save lives,” said Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, who sponsored the legislation. “What we have done with that bill in addition, to the (Distracted Driving) bill the year before, those two bills are going to help move us into a position where we have fewer accidents and fewer casualties on our highways. If we save one life, that’s a great force.”
The legislation, which takes effect July 1, was introduced in memory of Harlie Oswalt, a 15-year-old Holly Springs high school student, who was killed in a car accident in November 2016 while riding in the back seat of a car.
Prior to this, seat belt laws limited the seat belt requirement to the driver and front-seat passenger and required only children under 7 to be restrained in a child safety seat, booster seat or seat belt.
Car crashes are the number one killer of teens both nationwide and in Mississippi. In the state in 2015, 78 teens between the ages of 15 and 20 died in car crashes. And 51 percent of these died because they were either unrestrained or not properly restrained, according to Basden.
“It’s the number one reason we’re losing our Mississippi teens,” Basden said.
Basden noted that the report in the Journal of Pediatrics only included fatalities. She said Mississippi’s injury rate is also striking. In 2015, 3,836 teenagers between the ages of 15 and 20 were injured in car crashes. She said these injuries can range from a bruise to “lifetime impairment.”
Basden said she recently met with a high school senior who lost a football scholarship to Mississippi State after the truck he was driving ran off the road and into a ditch. The student, who wasn’t wearing his seat belt, broke his back and is now a paraplegic.
“There are so many stories like that in Mississippi. It can definitely change their quality of life and we don’t want that to happen, especially at this age,” Basden said.