Center Studies Safer Cars for Kids

Center uses multidisciplinary approach to prevent vehicle injuries to children and teens.

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By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation

In the summer of 1995, a 20-day-old infant was rushed to the emergency department at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the victim of a two-car crash. The baby was dead, but not from the crash itself. The infant, properly restrained in a rear-facing safety seat, had been killed by a deploying airbag. It was the first known case of a child airbag death.

“That was the beginning,” says pediatrician Flaura Koplin Winston, MD., Ph.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, who was on duty when the baby arrived.  “It really galvanized the need to think comprehensively about injury prevention for children as its own science.”

Winston, also an engineer, began to see an increasing number of child airbag injuries and fatalities, and realized with growing horror that deploying airbags posed a significant danger to young children. She and others began working with industry to improve airbag design, with the goal of reducing the threat.   

Ultimately, these efforts led to her founding the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in 1997. Since 2005, the injury center has been the host organization for a National Science Foundation (NSF) Industry/University Cooperative Research Center called the Center for Childhood Injury Prevention Studies, or CChIPS. This designation refers to research centers that join with industry to study and draft solutions to important issues. 

The CChIPS program, co-directed by Winston and Kristy Arbogast, Ph.D., a trained engineer and research associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, is the only one in the NSF’s science/industry partnership program that focuses solely on child injury prevention.

NSF has funded the center with more than $900,000 since 2005. Twelve industry members also support the center with annual membership fees of $50,000 each. These have provided the center with an additional $540,000 in 2010 alone. 

The need for such a center was clear from the outset. Injury is the leading cause of death and acquired disability for children ages one to 19. Among those ages five to 19, an estimated 68 percent of injury deaths result from motor vehicle crashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Moreover, children are a population with injury risks unique to their physiology. 

“Children aren’t just small adults,” Winston says. “We have to approach this from a child developmental perspective—from their biomechanical and physical development to their brain, social and psychological development.  Who’s getting hurt - and why? We try to answer these questions in ways that will produce solutions.”

Through the NSF-sponsored Center for Childhood Injury Prevention Studies, scientists from The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania work with industry partners—including automobile and child car seat manufacturers, an insurance company, and a company specializing in driving simulation technology—to conduct research that ultimately will prove practical to industry, that is, in helping develop new product designs and other strategies aimed at improving child safety. 

“It emerged out of the concept we had already applied for years within our injury research center.  We’d been conducting translational research into child injury, in cooperation with federal agencies, non-profit organizations, industry for years,” Winston says.  “Our purpose is to advance the safety of children, adolescents and young adults through research.  We are, essentially, doing research to provide credible, practical information to our collaborators on how to make better products, educational programs and policies that can prevent crashes and injuries and save kids’ lives.”

While traffic injury prevention and treatment has been the primary focus of the center for more than a decade, researchers recently have begun to examine other areas, such as sports injuries, and hope to add new partners, such as sports teams and others.  “Concussion occurs from many mechanisms, from crashes to sports, and across the age spectrum, but children are more at risk; so, we are starting to focus on it,” Winston says. “Emerging research is demonstrating the importance of prevention and early treatment when a concussion does occur.”