Won’t Someone Think of the Children?
Thoreau goes off on child car seat laws, apparently without realizing just how burdensome those laws have become. These laws are, in my mind, an excellent example of how safety regulations can easily go amok and do more harm than good. The problem isn’t with the idea that car seats are safer than no car seats, even if we’re talking about a six or seven year old child (never mind a twelve year old child). In fact, I have not the slightest doubt that, on average, car seats make children safer.
The problem is, though, that human beings are not numbers. These rigid and absolutist regulations don’t remotely allow for individual parents to undertake their own analysis of whether in a given case it may be best to do without a car seat. They do not remotely account for the unintended consequences of forcing parents to spend hundreds of dollars on car seats for children as old as 12 and then forcing those same parents to put all such children in car seats each and every time the child is in the car.
All that matters for purposes of these laws is that, on average, children under 12 are safer when they sit in car seats – it does not matter whatsoever how much safer (if at all) an individual child is, as each instance of a child in a car without a safety seat is treated as equally dangerous. It does not matter if, as a result of safety seat laws, parents are unable to car pool their children (since few parents are going to regularly keep their cars stocked with more safety seats than they have children). It does not matter if this means that parents can no longer have Uncle Phil pick the kids up from school, utterly destroying the flexibility of a parent’s schedule. It does not matter if all of this inflexibility (particularly when combined with other child safety laws) destroys the spontaneity of a child’s schedule, hurts their socialization, and encourages more time playing video games online than playing whiffle ball at their friend’s house across town.
Finally, because they treat humans as mere numbers and statistics, hese one-size-fits-all child safety laws ignore occasions in which the requirement that all children below a certain age or below a certain height and weight be in car seats actively makes a situation more dangerous. As noted above, these laws make car pooling or having a trusted friend or relative pick up a child difficult-to-impossible. This of course means that parents have to spend more time on the road and drive more miles. Beyond any additional environmental effects of driving more miles, these requirements increase the likelihood that a given parent will have an accident in the first place since, obviously, more miles driven = greater likelihood of an accident.
And what about the situation of the agitated infant, a situation that my wife and I have had to encounter plenty? Here you have a wailing infant who needs to be held to calm down. Listening to one’s child screaming while driving is, to say the least, a major distraction – the parents, include the driver, trying to console the baby even as their heart is breaking because the child is so unhappy. Major distractions of course increase accident risks. But so does pulling over to the side of the road on the highway so that you can rock the infant back to calm; and the longer that you’re by the side of the road, the greater the risk of an accident. And sometimes, even once you’ve got your infant calmed down, she will go right back to being upset as soon as you try to get her in the car seat. Indeed, she may even make it almost impossible to put her in the car seat (my wife once spent 45 minutes in the daycare parking lot before she was able to get our daughter in the car seat, although since she was alone, safety seat laws were not the reason why this was necessary).
In such a situation, what is safer? A. Having the child calm down by being held by her mother in the passenger seat (or, as likely, the back seat); B. Continue to drive with the baby wailing at the top of her lungs while both parents do everything they can to calm her down; or C. Pull over to the side of the road until the baby is calm enough to go back in her car seat?
The answer? It doesn’t matter – the law says you have to choose B or C, whether or not A would be the best response in a given situation. And so, B or C is the option that we have always chosen.
This isn’t to say that I think child car seat laws are the end of the world or anything like that – on the scale of stupid laws, they rank pretty low on my list – just that they help illustrate how blunt an instrument the law can often be, creating one-size-fits-all solutions to problems that often may be best solved by people with the best knowledge of a given situation. A more flexible set of laws that understood that in some cases a safety seat isn’t really the best option would make a world of sense.