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Do we really care about children?

As a society, we are zealous when it comes to the safety of children. And rightfully so. Still, for some reason we find it perfectly acceptable to routinely include them in the most dangerous activity of American life: riding in a car. Even with car seats, auto accidents are the leading cause of death amongst children over two years old. It is time that child advocates start promoting mixed-use, walkable communities as an alternative to better armor and thicker padding.

We want to pause here and say thank you to James Segedy for his ongoing support of this blog. We are so thankful to those that choose to support us with a recurring donation. It is a strong affirmation that the Strong Towns message of change resonates and it is giving us an opportunity to expand and refine that message further. James, you are helping us to shine a bright light and for that we thank you!

I was out for a walk with my family this past weekend. My wife and I were discussing one of her friends who was expecting. This would be the second child for this friend who also has a six year old. In the conversation my wife -- who by the way I would describe as brilliant, well-informed and very frugal (I would add other adjectives, of course, but those are the ones pertinent to this post) -- she lamented the added cost of having kids so far apart. There was a need, according to her, to essentially get all new kid gear, from car seats to cribs.

This was puzzling to me. I'd like to think I'm a pretty modern dad, up to date on all the latest and greatest recommendations for raising happy and healthy kids, but I was not aware of a law or even a recommendation that a plastic car seat be replaced just because sixty months had elapsed since it was purchased. Looking at my six and four year old and knowing that we have not completely abandoned the idea of a third child, I started to run through the cost of outfitting an entirely new nursery. Ouch.

I'll pause here and point out that my wife is right (to which our readers say: was there any doubt?). Manufacturers of car seats are now putting expiration dates on their products - typically five to eight years - following a theory that the seat could become obsolete if a change in car design or industry norm occurred. That the practice also happens to benefit the car seat manufacturers is where I wrong-headedly took the conversation.

Actually, I went even further than that. I went all the way to the Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner argument in SuperFreakonomics that having your kid in a car seat doesn't matter. Now, hold your anger at my apostasy (I heard it from my wife already) and let me explain. In the book, Levitt and Dubner statistically demonstrate that the major advancement in auto safety for non-infants was not the child seat but simply moving the kids to the back seat and putting them in a seat belt. A passenger - be they a child or an adult - is far more likely to survive a car crash if they are sitting, buckled in the back seat rather than in the front. Anyone who grew up, as I did, riding in the cab of a truck with the only restraint being the back of the driver's arm knows what I'm talking about. (See ABC News from October 2009.)

This was quite the wrong argument to have with my wife, who went for the kill with this statement: 

I wouldn't compromise with our kids' safety. Would you?


I wouldn't intentionally compromise on my kids' safety -- of course not -- but as I ruminated on my spousal lesson of the week it occurred to me just how often we do compromise their safety.

After perinatal conditions, which are problems that occur near or in the immediate months after childbirth, the leading cause of death amongst children ages 0 to 19 is auto accidents. For accidental causes of mortality, there is no close second. Even drowning, which we are militant about here in terms of baths, pools and time at the lake, is just a fraction of auto accidents. Imagine two 9/11 attacks each year that killed just kids and you still would not have the number of child fatalities America has each year from auto accidents.

I take my oldest to school every day. Three days a week she is picked up, the other two she rides the bus after school. My youngest goes on many of these trips. On weekends, we drive into town for swimming lessons, grocery store runs, visits to families, trips to the park, church, movies, etc... I would estimate that my girls take between twelve and twenty trips a week. Average round trip: probably ten miles. Sure, I put my kids in car seats, make sure they are buckled according to manufacturer's specifications, drive according to posted limits, always signal my turns, etc... but what I am doing putting them in a car so often?

The answer is that I am an American, so I drive everywhere. In my town I really don't have an alternative. Even the people who live in the traditional neighborhoods have to drive out to the edge of town to get groceries (don't worry, the city has spent millions making that trip fast and easy). But is this really acceptable?

If we are serious about wanting what is best for kids, shouldn't we be doing everything we can to reduce the number of auto trips people are required to take each day? And when people do take trips, shouldn't our top priority be reducing the travel speeds on local streets? Once outside of the local street network, shouldn't our top priority be the removal of the greatest source of accidents - intersections - so traffic can flow smoothly?

The best thing we can do for the safety of our children is to get them out of the car by building mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods.

So who in the child-advocacy realm is talking about this? Nobody that I can see. Safe Kids USA has all kinds of information on using your child seat, but nothing on the value of reducing trips. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has information on child seats, but that's it. Same with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Transportation Safety Board.

Child seats. Should they really inoculate our collective conscience?

Shortly after my oldest was born, I got in a bad accident. An oncoming car came across the lane, we glanced each other head on, I went off the road and came to a stop when Mr. Tree refused to yield. I was belted and air-bagged yet banged my head pretty hard. I could not remember my phone number, address or doctor's name and it took me a couple of months before I had my full mental cognition back. For a fast-driving, road-loving, engineer type with a new baby, this had a major impact on me.

I'm sorry if this piece has caused anyone pain. It seems we all know someone who has lost a loved one, too many of them kids, in a car accident. I don't blame any parent for doing what I do each day: buckle up the kids, give them a kiss and drive as safely as I can. Still, we need to ask ourselves, what are we really willing to risk in order to maintain the American development pattern?

Is it really worth it?


Additional Reading


Last month we started collecting donations to cover the cost of producing a DVD version of the Curbside Chat. Our goal was to connect with 100 of our readers that would be willing to donate $25 each. We've taken quite a bite out of this so far -- we're down to needing only 72 -- but we still have a ways to go. If you value what you read here or what we produce in our podcast, please do what you can to help us spread this message. We thank you, especially if you are one of our 800+ Facebook connections! It was only a year ago we were still below 200. Thanks for spreading the word. 

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Reader Comments (9)

I've found the 1970s protests by Dutch parents instructive. They took to the streets in large numbers to demand safer ways for their children to cycle and walk to school. Their demands started a long-term re-imagining of the roads, and set off a forty-year trend towards ever-safer roads. They are today perhaps the safest in the world.

April 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrent

Great article! Vehicle saftey and kids is a constant conversation we have in our home. I have a 6 year old with Down syndrome who has ridden the bus to school since she was three. There have been a couple instances when I found the car seat she was supposed to be in not properly installed. I run a home child care, so I am talking often with other parents about being sure their child is safe.

We also live only 2 blocks from our K-4 school, and am amazed how many of the children in our neighborhood get rides with parents. Our typical 5 year old will be entering Kindergarten next year, and will walk, as I cannot drive her. I actually sent the school principal an email last week, suggesting perhaps we could encourage families to act healthy and to walk to school. She responded that it's up to parents, and safety first, then fitness. Seems like she's telling me it's not safe for my child to walk to school, but since we live in the "walk zone" the school won't bus my typical child.

April 18, 2011 | Unregistered Commentergml4

Great article. You make some really good points. People aren't talking about how to get kids out of the cars and onto the sidewalks. Some communities don't even have sidewalks. You know I think Safe Routes to School talks about this a little bit. The more schools participating in Safe Routes to the School, the more walkable a community becomes.

April 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTheresa

I moved to Manhattan a few months ago and was surprised to see so many kids in the neighborhood. In my imagination, city residents were single or childless couples. That idea, of course, was stupid. Everyday I see swarms of kids walking to Central Park with their daycare or school groups. I've see them walking to the museums and various events. Being a kid in a walkable city looks like a pretty sweet deal. There are certainly a lot more potential playmates close by (probably often in the same apartment building) then there are for kids in the suburbs or rural areas.

April 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGreg

Chuck, Great post. Sometimes the most obvious solutions are overlooked when those solutions challenge the status quo. I find it deplorable that none of the mainstream child safety programs or organizations even touch on the fact that your children will be much safer if they aren't in the car. Not even the Safe Routes to School program, which was inspired by the Dutch in the 70's, mentions the link between less time in the car and fewer child deaths/injuries. If that link can be made effectively so that it resonates with the American public, it sure will help make the case for building smarter towns.

April 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Hadden

A couple of things..first, I was under the impression that the carseat expiration date thing was because of the risk of material (plastic) failure, not design upgrades. Not that it's not a crock--I recently relocated to Europe and the carseat manufacturers here don't put expiration dates on carseats. Second, on carseats, it would be interesting to know the injury rate, particularly head-injury, with and without carseats, not just the death rate, although death rate is scary enough. Around here they are required to have side impact protection on carseats... Third, part of the problem in the US is the centralization of schools. Over the last hundred years schools have gotten very large, which means they serve rather large geographic areas. But a return to local schools means giving up many of the perks of larger schools, like in-school libraries, fancy chemistry labs and media centers. Not to say that's good or bad...just sayin'. Also not to say your main point isn't valid. In fact, I live within biking distance of daughter's preschool, and often we drive. You just gave me the motivation to really think twice about driving. I mean, it's one thing to just be lazy, another thing to think about the safety of my child.

April 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKelly

Great article! I feel the angle of schools and child safety is a great way to help tackle some of the problems with our development pattern. Schools and safety are universal, and for the most part, bipartisan. I've always felt that this type of bipartisanship is needed, even at the most local level, to help tackle these issues. Once again, great blog post.

I wanted to add a small personal story - I had the opportunity to walk to elementary school through 5th Grade, then the district consolidated the middle school (and I had to bus across town to a large suburban-style complex at the edge of town). I remember having to wake up at 5:45am (as opposed to 7:30am the previous years) to catch the bus, pick-up other students, transfer at the local high school and drive slowly across town. Because of its location on the other side of a highway and away from any housing, the new school could only be reached by parent's driving or busing. Frankly, it was a waste of time (and money) that could have been better spent elsewhere.

April 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel

A few points.

* Expiration Dates - Unnecessary expiration dates are a widespread problem both with food and and with safety equipment. It is one of the strategies that manufacturers use to encourage people to buy more of the product than necessary (<http://www.cracked.com/article_18994_6-subtle-ways-youre-getting-screwed-at-grocery-store.html>). I don't know much about carseats, but I would not be surprised to hear that they last indefinitely. I had a conversation about bicycle helmets a while ago. The official recommendation used to be to replace them after five years. That has recently changed to three years. However, the science seems to show that materials last indefinitely, and that there is no reason to replace a helmet unless it has sustained an impact or is visibly damaged.

* Chuck: You say, "...I am an American, so I drive everywhere. In my town I really don't have an alternative." I am not familiar with your town, so I cannot say that you are definitely wrong. However, I can say that many people say things like this and are usually wrong. Bicycles provide an entirely practical mode of transportation in most environments. People often think of cycling as difficult, dangerous, and extremely limited, but none of this is accurate. Proper equipment and technique can enable a person to travel by bicycle with ease, safety, and efficiency under very diverse conditions, and under diverse operational requirements. In particular, bicycles can be equipped to carry surprising large loads of passengers and cargo (I have seen a photo of a mother carrying three kids plus groceries on a bike.), can be driven faster than most people expect, can be driven safely on fast, wide, and complex roads (<http://cycles.eli-damon.info/2010/03/10/frequently-asked-questions-about-bicycle-driving.aspx>). They can be driven by people of all ages starting at five or so (with limitations, of course), and by people with a wide variety of disabilities.

* Dutch Roads - The Dutch have gone to great lengths to make their roads safer. However, some of it (not all of it) has been demonstrably counterproductive, the designs being based on fear rather than reason. So I am hesitant to herald the Dutch road safety program. Americans have also gone to great lengths to make their roads safer (by a very different tack), and much of it is counterproductive as well. For example, see Tom Vanderbilt's discussion "Forgiven Roads or Permissive Roads?" in his book "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)".

* Safe Routes to School - Some schools have gone so far as to actually try to prohibit students from walking and biking to school. However, some have also had inspiring success in encouraging students to walk and bike to school. One tactic that I like is the "walking school bus" or "bike bus", where kids walk or bike to school together, possibly led by an adult or two. Here is one example: <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F0lfqShrRlE>.

* Mobility's Diminishing Returns - This is a comment that wanted to make on the earlier Strong Towns article "Mobility's Diminish Returns", but I didn't get around to it, so I'm posting it here instead. I wanted to point out that highway building and highway expansion often has the effect to reducing mobility by restricting travel both across and along the highway. Travel across a highway can be restricted by physical barriers in the case of limited access highways. Sometimes limited access highways cut right through and sever previously built roads. All traffic ends up being routed on roundabout routes and funneled through only a few access points, creating more distance traveled and more congestion. (This is also a problem with urban railroads.) Pedestrian access across highways of all types is restricted by barriers of law, danger, and fear. Travel along highways is often legally restricted, particularly on limited access highways. The danger and fear issues are also present for pedestrians. There is also much fear for drivers of slow vehicles, although the danger is somewhat overblown. Travel across, along, and all around large highways is also inhibited by the emotional effect of the bleakness of large highways and by the low utility of the sparse development pattern and high-consumption oriented facilities that large highways attract.

April 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEli Damon

I've had this same intense conversation with a neighbor who is all fired up over fluoride, which is fine, more power to her, but she certainly didn't appreciate my perspective on the greater risk of her driving her two children over 15,000 miles a year.

Of course, why stop with children. It is pretty obvious that if we cared about anyone's safety, that we would build more appropriate, human scaled communities.

April 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGary
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