Kids Are Safer in the Car With Their Grandparents Behind the Wheel

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The next time you put the kids in the car, you might want to ask Grandma to drive. Kids are twice as safe when their grandparents are behind the wheel instead of their parents, a new study shows.

Dr. Fred Henretig, emergency medicine attending physician at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, came to that surprising conclusion after looking at data on car crashes involving children in 15 states and Washington, D.C.; the data were collected by an insurance company between 2003 and 2007.

It’s long been known that older people get into more car accidents than younger drivers, so Henretig and his colleagues figured their study would simply confirm what everyone already knew: that children’s grandparents would be more likely than their parents to put kids in danger while shuttling them around.

In fact, the researchers found that grandparents were half as likely as parents to cause injury to children. “We were very surprised by the finding that most people’s intuition turned out to be wrong,” Henretig says. “What we learned was that grandparents drive very, very cautiously when their grandchildren are on board, making a special effort to drive safely.”

Overall, the five years of crashes studied involved 217,976 children. Grandma and grandpa were driving in 10% of all car accidents (the rest occurred when parents were driving), and responsible for only about 7% of the total injuries to children under 16.

Henretig and his colleagues took into account the smaller proportion of crashes among grandparents, but even after adjusting for that and other factors like drivers’ gender, drivers’ seatbelt use, children’s use of seat restraints, whether children sat in the front or back seat, and the vehicle type, the lower injury rate among grandparents remained statistically significant.

Why the lower risk despite the fact that older drivers are more prone to car accidents? Age can increase certain risk factors for dangerous driving, such as having slower reflexes and not being able to make quick decisions in confusing or heavy traffic. But older drivers tend to have some safe habits too: they don’t speed as often and they take fewer risks when changing lanes or merging into high-speed traffic. It may also be that grandparents are less likely than younger drivers to take longer trips on highways, where many accidents and injuries to passengers occur.

Interestingly, however, grandparents were less likely than parents to adopt one crucial safe-driving behavior — strapping children into seatbelts or proper restraints such as a car seat. While 98% of both parents and grandparents involved in crashes used some type of safety restraint for their children, 25% of grandparents did not follow car-safety recommendations, while only 19% of parents failed to follow proper guidelines for securing kids.

That’s not to say that seatbelts aren’t important in protecting youngsters during an accident, but rather that grandparents’ other driving habits, such as cruising at lower speeds, may have compensated for the added risk. Still, if grandparents followed guidelines more faithfully, they might improve their safety record even further. “We’d like to see increased educational efforts and advocacy initiatives targeted to grandparents in particular,” says Henretig. “There are millions of programs on child safety tips, and driving safely with children on board, but very little of it is targeted to grandparents.”

Many older drivers may not be aware of the latest car-seat guidelines by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The pediatricians group recommends that infants younger than 2 ride in the back seat in a rear-facing child seat; once they outgrow that, they can move to a front-facing car seat, which must remain in the back seat. Older children too big for these seats can move to a booster seat until they reach the height of 4 ft. 9 in. After that, they should stay in the back seat of the car, but use lap or shoulder belts.

Henretig notes that while the study did not show that grandparents get into fewer accidents than parents overall — the study focused only on crashes that had occurred with children on board — it opens up the possibility that kids are just as safe, if not safer, when their grandparents are chauffeuring them around. With nearly six million grandparents living with their grandchildren in the U.S., and a third of them responsible for caring for the youngsters, that’s a relief to know.

Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.