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The Problem with Car Seats

Cars are dangerous places. Especially for children. Car crashes are the leading cause of death for children aged 3 to 14.

Anyone who·s known me for any length of time has heard me rant about the latest overhyped danger to children (usually some variation on stranger danger, or terribly fun, interesting things that conceivably might result in injury) and how it·s being used to justify making children prisoners of their parents, never learning to be independent or judge risks. These conversations almost always end with some variation on ·The most dangerous thing you do with your kid is put them in the car. But no one is freaked out about that.·

So you might imagine that I am a big fan of car seats. And I am, I guess. I mean, I·m glad we have them. It·s the least we can do if we·re going to drive our kids around, and I·m glad that their specifications have been getting more exacting, and all that. And I·m even glad, even if it·s in a reluctant, sinking-feeling-in-my-stomach kind of way, to be refreshed on all the niggly rules about their use that make them more effective.

But at the same time, I am more than a little ticked off by the righteous tone of the latest spate of articles devoted to telling parents how awful they are if their car seat straps are ever a bit loose and how they should always go above and beyond the minimum requirements of car seatage. On the one hand, they·re hard to argue with. They·re not wrong about what·s safest.

Still, having to use car seats suck. Especially now that you are required to have a child in some sort of seat until age eight, they more or less constitute a mandate against carpooling for more than two kids at a time, except for those with minivans. Backward facing, which we·re now told to do until 2, or even until 40 pounds, is certainly safer in an accident, but some percentage of children (possibly those who in later life get sick riding in the backward facing seats on trains and buses?) scream their heads off until they get to face forward. How safe is distracted driving? Statistically, very dangerous. I·ll take reducing your chance of an accident in the first place every time.

And that, really, more than the ·this is annoying· piece, is what gets me about the discussion around car seats. It·s never connected to a movement to get kids riding in cars less, or to reduce accidents on the road. No one ever says in these articles, ·If you·re sleep deprived·well, sleepy drivers are as dangerous as drunk drivers, so tell your in-laws you·re not making the 5 hour drive, they have to come to you.· No one ever puts on those tip lists picking a day care or pediatrician within walking distance, or encouraging your kids to walk or bike to school as a way to reduce your child·s risk of car accidents. You don·t see the car seat safety advocates out there fighting for traffic calming, public transit funding, bike infrastructure, walkable development, or greater traffic law enforcement.

Or, hey, here·s a thought, how about making cars themselves safer for children to ride in? We·d still need infant seats, but for older children, what about adjustable height seat belts in the back? Or the built-in booster seats that do now exist in a few cars·how about a movement to make them standard, and in the safer center seat? As a bonus, it would make cars safer for us short adults.

Some manufacturers have claimed they shouldn·t have to do stuff like that because only 5 percent of cars are used to transport children. I call extra fragrant baloney on that one. Thirty-one percent of households in this country have children under 18 in them. And car purchasers who don·t have kids at the time sometimes have kids before they get a new car. Or their friends, siblings, or children do. Or they become a mentor. Or they sell their car to someone who does. How many people really never run into a situation in which they might want to drive a child somewhere?

It·s easy to trace the political path from parents worriedly testing toys for lead paint or frustratedly seeking out bottles without bisphenol-A in them to a collective demand to reduce these dangers at the source. Rather than only haranguing parents for a loose shoulder strap, we should make the same transition in the conversation about children and cars.

·Miriam Axel-Lute

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