George Washington University has received a $5 million grant to study automotive safety at its Ashburn campus, and researchers said they will apply most of the money toward making cars safer for children and improving critical elements of highway safety, such as crash investigation techniques.

Local law enforcement officials said such research, especially when conducted in the Washington region, could filter down in the form of important guidance for police agencies and the public.

Police in Northern Virginia and throughout the region have placed a strong emphasis on child safety in cars because they say many people simply don't know how to protect their kids properly.

The grant, received Feb. 13, came from Ford Motor Co. as the result of an out-of-court settlement elsewhere. According to university officials, plaintiffs in a lawsuit agreed that more value could be added to the settlement by earmarking funds for safety research.

Researchers at the National Crash Analysis Center, a joint program at George Washington sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, will conduct most of the research and farm out some of it to other educational facilities, according to school officials.

"We will be able to collaborate with other research universities and institutes and pull the research together utilizing the skills of the best of the best," Kennerly H. Digges, the center's director of biomechanics and safety, said in a statement. "This substantial amount of funding will allow us to accomplish some major goals and most importantly will save lives on our highways."

Police in the region, who put considerable resources into child safety programs, said such research efforts can only help.

Programs in Fairfax and Prince William counties and in Alexandria, for example, work specifically with parents and caregivers to provide education about safety seats, a critical part of protecting children, they said.

"We know that children are at risk because of their size, because they can be thrown around more easily in a car and because they can be thrown from a car," said Amy Bertsch, an Alexandria police spokeswoman. "There have been a lot of improvements and increased awareness, but there's still a lot of work to be done."

Bertsch said Alexandria police regularly teach parents how to install car seats because experts say most car seats are improperly installed and dangerous to children. Alexandria police also have a minivan dubbed "Baby-1" that is specially tailored toward educating the public about child safety.

In Prince William County, where police have an aggressive program advocating child safety in cars, police have given away scores of free car seats to needy families and often instruct parents in how to install them.

Accident reconstruction and crash investigation officers hope such research will help guide their efforts.

"This type of research is very valuable in helping the industry identify the risk and the hazards that help us improve designs and procedures," said Prince William Police Chief Charlie T. Deane. "We will be anxious to see the results of the studies. It can only help."

George Washington officials said the public will reap most of the benefits from research that results from the grant. Along with targeted efforts in child safety and crash investigations, the National Crash Analysis Center plans to lead research in areas such as crash effects in large and small vehicles, and advanced air-bag and safety-belt systems.

"With this funding, we will be contributing to saving lives while the leaders and engineers will carry on these efforts for years to come," said Timothy Tong, dean of George Washington's School of Engineering and Applied Science. "It's a winning situation for every one."