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 that 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 children 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 put considerable resources into child safety programs and said that such research efforts can only make a positive difference.

Programs in Fairfax and Prince William counties and in Alexandria, for example, work with parents and caregivers to provide education about child 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 that Alexandria police regularly teach parents how to install car seats; experts say that a majority of 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 on how to install them.

Accident reconstruction and crash investigation officers hope that such research will help guide their future 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 that the public will reap the majority of the benefits from research stemming 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 the effects in large and small vehicles during a crash and an analysis of 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 everyone."