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 a leading cause of death among children in the United States. It is time that child advocates start promoting mixed-use, walkable communities as an alternative to better armor and thicker padding.
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, I started to run through the hypothetical 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.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, for children ages 5 through young adults age 24, the leading cause of death 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 to swimming lessons, grocery store runs, visits with 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?
A version of this story was originally published in 2011. Top photo from Intel Free Press.