Let my children go!

Stricter car seat laws may bring incremental safety gains, but at the cost of a family's liberty.

Published August 1, 2001 7:16PM (EDT)

How many car seats do I have to buy to raise my child safely and obey the law in this country? Too many.

Effective less than six months from now -- Jan. 1, 2002, to be exact -- a new law in California mandates that children ride in booster seats until they weigh 60 pounds or are 6 years old, a measure that adds 20 pounds and two years to the current law. If I violate the law once, I will be fined $100 and get a point on my driving record. For the second time, it's $250 and an additional point. And as California goes, so goes the nation: Washington and Arkansas have similar laws, and booster seat bills are in various stages in at least 16 other states.

Age 6 or 60 pounds isn't the end of the debate, either. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and other safety advocates recommend that children travel in booster seats until they are 8 years old and almost 5 feet tall. State Sen. Jackie Speier, who authored California's booster seat law, jokes that her daughter, who is small-framed, will be in a booster seat "until her junior prom."

I want my child to be safe. I want him in the safest place in the safest car. But what's next, mandatory crash helmets? I get suspicious of any product that uses my fear as a foundation for its appeal. But I really object to fear, incomplete facts and individual horror stories being used to take the decision out of my hands, and criminalize me if I make a different risk assessment.

A booster seat does not guarantee a child's safety. Like a seat belt, it increases the odds of surviving a crash, but a booster seat does not provide enough of an improvement over a seat belt to justify making it mandatory for children until they are 8 years old.

We're raising children in a climate of vigilance about relatively small risks, and in the process we are losing sight of other values, like fun, independence and adventure. We're imposing a mandate that is cumbersome, intrusive and especially onerous for low-income people, car poolers and big families. Meanwhile, we're abdicating our responsibility to assess risks for ourselves and our kids, and turning over more power to the police and the courts.

We've also lost perspective on how safe American children already are. They are healthier, stronger, better nourished and better educated than children were 50 or 100 years ago. They also have a far lower risk of deadly accidents, especially on the roads. Yet reading a pamphlet from a booster seat campaign, you might also think that 5-to-9-year-olds were dying and being injured in car crashes at a higher rate than the rest of the population. What if the opposite were true?

NHTSA, the federal agency responsible for traffic safety programs, warns parents that "traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for children of every age from 5 to 14 years -- a fact that can be linked, at least in part, to the reality that most kids are unbuckled or improperly restrained in vehicles." While these statistics are true, they simplify cause and effect to promote booster seats as the solution to a complicated problem.

Traffic crashes are the leading cause of accidental death for all Americans, not just children who aren't in booster seats. Driving is the most dangerous thing most of us do in our daily lives; children are no more at risk than the rest of us. In fact, the NHTSA's own compilation of fatality and injury rates shows that 5-to-9-year-olds, the target population for booster seats, are actually the age group least likely to die in a car crash.

This age group, dubbed the "forgotten children" in a recent report on ABC's "20/20," is in fact the safest age group on the roads today. Infants and toddlers are the second safest, and then as children reach adolescence their danger increases and holds steady for most of the adult years. It is true that only 15 to 20 percent of elementary-school-age children use booster seats that put the seat belt exactly across their hips and shoulders -- where it should be. But this statistic should not cause us to lose sight of how relatively safe these children are.

There is no need to panic.

Yet, a typical pamphlet from Boost America, a multimillion-dollar campaign financed by Ford Motor Co., tells parents that "a child's growing years are ... a time of added risk, especially on America's streets and highways." What are the added risks? The campaign invokes an ominous world where 5-year-olds are suddenly surrounded by danger. In fact, young people ages 16 to 20 are dying in car crashes at an astronomical rate 10 times that of the booster seat age group, and being injured more than six times as often; but there is not a corresponding outpouring of initiatives and legislation for this less compliant demographic.

The brochure from Boost America warns us that more than "500 young lives [are] lost each year." These emotional appeals foster the illusion that boosters could have saved all these lives. Some crashes cannot be survived no matter what safety equipment you are strapped into. It is tempting to place blame on a factor that we can control -- like children being improperly restrained. Yet some of these children died because a car's brakes failed or a van careened out of control into their vehicle. Our defense against this tremendous vulnerability is to blame, legislate and punish.

You would never guess it, but in traffic safety, we are dealing with the consequences of a wonderfully successful public health campaign. There are six times as many people driving, and 11 times as many cars on the road, as there were in 1925, yet the number of Americans killed in motor vehicle crashes (per vehicle mile traveled) has declined by more than 90 percent, according to the National Safety Council. Eighteen people died per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 1925; that number dropped steeply to 1.7 deaths (per 100 million VMT) in 1992, where it remained steady through 1999.

This extraordinary improvement in driving safety can be attributed to a landmark public health campaign that began in the mid-1960s, with the founding of the agency that became the NHTSA. Major changes in vehicle and highway design followed, things that most of us take for granted like headrests, lap-shoulder seat belts, crumple zones and collapsing steering wheel columns. Factor in other social campaigns, like the fight against drunken driving, and you begin to see why we are safer now.

Child car seats were introduced in the late 1970s, and by the mid-'80s all 50 states had passed laws requiring their use. Motor vehicle deaths for children under age 5 have decreased 34 percent since 1974. However, the bulk of that drop had occurred by 1985; over the past 15 years, though car seat technology has improved and rates of use have almost doubled for infants and quadrupled for toddlers, the number of children under 5 dying in car crashes has dropped just 7 percent.

In risk management, when you get to the far end of any bell curve, eliminating the last bits of risk gets increasingly difficult. That initial 34 percent reduction in fatality rates is a remarkable accomplishment, but our very success requires that we lower our expectations for future improvements. At the tail end of a successful risk reduction campaign, we face more and more expensive and intrusive efforts to save fewer lives.

One rationale often given for the new focus on booster seats is that school-age children's accident rates have not improved as much as infants' and toddlers' in the past 25 years. What you don't hear is that the school-age children have lower risk to begin with, making a similar rate of improvement almost impossible to achieve. What you don't hear is that this is good news.

None of this is to say that any family that chooses to shouldn't be encouraged to use booster seats. However, mandating the use of this product with a marginal safety benefit diminishes our lives in several ways.

As they are now, car seats impinge on neighborly and community-minded activities by reducing flexibility and spontaneity. I can't let my cousin or friend pick up my son from school in her car to help me out in a pinch. Our children need logistical help just to get a friend to come home with them after school.

And the complications and hassles that families face now will only increase as the number of required car seats climbs. A mother dropping off three children under the age of 6 on her way to work would have to uninstall three car seats and leave them at day care or school in order for her husband to pick up the kids in his car on the way home from work.

What's more, the more child restraints you have to use, the less likely you are to fit into one car. Booster seat laws affect all those group trips in the past where we squeezed into one car for the fun of it, to save money or gas or to give one of the potential drivers a break. Those were all opportunities where parents could spend time with each other while the kids played or, more often, fought. Now, we are more and more likely to each take our own cars, further isolating parents who are already raising children without extended families or neighbors in their daily lives.

Then there are the issues of the fairness of booster seat laws and their enforcement. It is certainly easier for a wealthy family to comply with these laws, whether by buying more car seats or by purchasing an SUV or minivan with three rows of seating to accommodate children and their play dates.

Last year, the Big 3 American automakers pledged almost $50 million in car seat education and giveaway programs, but the cost of a booster seat (anywhere from $25 to $100) is not the primary problem for a low-income family. The main problem is that most cars built before 1990 (34 percent of cars on the road) have only lap belts in the back seat, an arrangement that works for just two models of booster seat (the Fisher Price Futura 20/60 and the Britax Laptop), both of which are nearly impossible to find in stores.

The American Academy of Pediatrics advises parents in this predicament to "check with your dealer or manufacturer to see if shoulder harnesses can be installed ... Another thing you can do is buy another car with lap/shoulder belts in the back seat." These are of course the best choices if money is no object, but they glide right over the real-life predicament of many families. Buying another car or retrofitting seat belts is not an option when even the cost of another car seat is daunting.

People who don't own cars, an invisible population in auto safety discussions, are going to be forced to buy and carry booster seats around if they want anyone to give their 5-year-old child a ride without breaking the law. Our babysitter got a $300 ticket for allowing a friend without a child or car seat to give her and her son a lift to church.

An even greater issue is how the law is enforced. Expanding the ages that children must sit in car seats vastly expands the number of vehicles that police are authorized to stop. In California, the police have what's called primary authority to stop cars for seat belt violations, meaning they don't have to pull you over for another violation first to notice that you aren't wearing your seat belt. So the police may stop your car if they suspect that the small 7-year-old wearing a shoulder belt is in fact only 5 and should be in a booster. Or they may stop you for any reason they want, and use that newly expanded power as a pretext.

Perhaps I could accept the law more gracefully if using a booster seat were really the best action I could take to improve my child's safety while traveling. In fact, there are several other choices I could make that would improve his safety more, but these are never going to make it into law.

For example, we could all drive less. A driver has the same risk of dying over 100 miles with a seat belt on as driving 58 miles without it. My child's life would be far safer if I drove even 20 percent less than I do now. Buses, trains and subways are all statistically safer ways to travel than cars, even though most of these vehicles don't accommodate child safety seats of any kind.

Most parents would probably choose to use booster seats after learning about how poorly regular-size seat belts protect small bodies. The horrifying stories I read of internal injuries caused to 7-year-olds by lap belts or shoulder belts tucked behind the back shocked me into wanting to buy a booster seat on the spot. But I want to decide. I want to be able to use the booster seat for my routine trips but to use a seat belt alone if that would allow all of us to ride together instead of taking two cars. In our embrace of regulation and legislation, what's lost is the knowledge that it's my responsibility to assess the risks my family and I face every day, and take them as I choose.

These are uncomfortable conversations to have, and they shouldn't be. We pass laws and promote regulations in a hushed atmosphere where no discussion is possible. Every time a child dies in a car accident it's a terrible tragedy, and we need to change how we view risk. We seem to believe that we can insulate our children from all risk if we only buy enough equipment, pass enough laws and punish people who don't follow them.

We'd all be better off if this passion for legislation and enforcement was directed into pressuring car manufacturers to make universal, meaningful design changes -- things like adjustable-height shoulder belts in all seating positions and booster seats as integral, foldout options on all cars. I don't want my child growing up in a panic about safety. I want to raise my child to be aware of but not petrified by the hazards that exist. I want to raise him with a sense of autonomy and self-reliance, and a realistic, graceful understanding that his world is really very safe.

By Miven Booth Trageser

Miven Booth Trageser is a writer living in Los Angeles.

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