The early recognition of life-threatening injury is paramount to the prompt initiation of appropriate care. This study assesses the importance of multiple rib fractures as a marker of severe injury in children. We analyzed physiologic, etiologic, and injury data for 2,080 children with blunt or penetrating trauma aged 0-14 years consecutively admitted to a Level I pediatric trauma center. Analysis of variance, Student's t-test, and the Chi-square test of independence were used to test for differences between children with rib fractures and other children. Probability of survival was modeled using stepwise logistic regression. There were 14 deaths among 33 children with rib fractures, a mortality rate of 42%. Child abuse accounted for 63% of the injuries to children less than 3 years old, while pedestrian injuries predominated among older children. Children with rib fractures were significantly more severely injured than children with blunt or penetrating trauma but without rib fractures. When compared to children without rib fractures, children with rib fractures had a higher mortality rate, but no statistically significant difference in morbidity. The mortality rate for the 18 children with both rib fractures and head injury was 71%. A logistic model with variables measuring severity of head injury and number of ribs fractured correctly predicted survival in more than 85% of children with thoracic trauma. Although rib fractures are rare injuries in childhood, they are associated with a high risk of death. The risk of mortality increases with the number of ribs fractured. The combination of rib fractures and head injury was usually fatal.