The irrationality of modern child safety

by Alan Cohen

Soren in his car seat

Soren in his car seat

Like most new parents, I devote a fair amount of thought to keeping my baby safe, but at the same time want to know when I can cut corners to reduce my stress level without increasing the risk too much. For example, the other day we were driving back to Quebec from Boston, trying to make it to the kennel to pick up the dog before it closed at 5:30. It was our first trip with Soren. Of course, traveling with a baby is more complicated than as a couple, and we got to a point where it was pretty close whether or not we could make it back. And then Soren pooped, and needed to feed…

Our dilemma, then, was whether Ju-hong would attempt to deal with one or both of these things while the car was moving (illegal of course) or whether we pulled over and risked all the inconvenience of not making it back in time to pick up the dog: an extra day’s charges, an extra hour of driving to get the dog the next day (with Soren in tow, of course), lost work time, feeling bad for the kennel owners, etc. In the end we stopped, and made it back a bit late but still got the dog.

Most parents would say stopping was the safe thing to do. Conventional wisdom says that letting a kid in a car without proper restraint is tantamount to murder. But most parents and conventional wisdom are wrong in this case, as were we. Yes, child safety seats and seat belts save lives. But how many lives? How much better are they than no restraint at all? Everything contains risk, and without knowing how much we can’t make judgments about priorities, about exactly how much we should sacrifice to avoid the risk.

Before writing this, my guess was that car seats do save lives, but that the effect isn’t all that big, and that just being in a car is dangerous enough that we should invest more effort in avoiding traveling with babies than in making them safe when we do travel. As it turns out, Steven Levitt (of Freakonomics fame) and a colleague published a paper on this not so long ago confirming my hypothesis. The tables in the paper are a bit hard to read and I wasn’t fully convinced by the methodology, but if I understand it properly, risk of death only goes down about 2% with a car seat compared to no restraint, and (for slightly older children) there is no difference between a car seat and a seat belt.

If Levitt’s numbers are right, I would need to use a car seat for 50 hours of driving to equal the benefit of eliminating one hour of driving time. Even if Levitt underestimates the benefit and it is, say, 10%, it would still take 10 hours of car seat to make up for one hour of driving. In other words, putting lots of effort into making sure everyone always uses car seats and that car seat design is optimized is just a distraction from the “real” problem: that we should put children in cars as little as possible. (Disclosure: we are planning another trip driving with Soren from here to Michigan.)

Of course, like us, no one is actually planning on stopping driving with kids. In fact, that is actually the point: there are lots of things we could do to further improve child safety that we choose not to do for reasons of convenience or because they cost too much or because there are trade offs between safety and enjoying life or growing properly. So we should hesitate a bit more before we culpabilize parents for every infraction of “optimally safe parenting,” and even before we make it illegal to drive a child without a car seat. Exactly how big does the the risk reduction have to be before we change a law? Before we take away the right of parents to choose about it? Before we say that it becomes a priority over all else in life?

Every society in every age has its own conventional wisdom of child rearing. Don’t feed babies solids before 6 months! Expose them early to lots of flavors! Stimulate them! Don’t overstimulate them! Despite the confidence withe which such pronouncements are made, relatively few are to be found across many societies. Where safety is concerned, we as a society fixate this conventional wisdom on a very small number of things that have been shown to have some benefit, and these things become absolute dogmas. All other things can be ignored. But, like car seats, the things on which we fixate are arbitrary and not necessarily the most important ways we could reduce risk or improve development. They just give us a way to feel like we’re doing our job protecting our kids. If we want to be honest with ourselves, we really don’t know what the true priorities should be. So we should all relax more and enjoy our time with our children more. But then, of course, we wouldn’t be true parents…

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