The Paradox of Car Seats

On March 21, the American Pediatric Association (APA) announced new car seat regulations. The new guidelines will appear in the April 2011 issue of Pediatrics.

The APA now recommends that children should be rear facing until the age of two. The revised guidelines also urge parents to keep older children in booster seats until they are 145 centimeters tall and aged between 8 and 12 years old. As of today, the Canadian Pediatric Association has not followed suit. However, the change may soon be coming.

In 2009, the British Medical Journal published findings that recommended children should stay rear-facing until the age of four. In fact, in most Scandinavian countries, this is already law. This Swedish website offers some photos of children up to the age of five in rear-facing car seats (because, honestly, I had to wonder how this would look!)

My take on the issue. First, I want to make it clear that I do not renounce basic safety precautions. The question for me is, what do car seats say about us as parents? At the risk of sounding crass, here’s what I hear: Go ahead and put your children in a metal and plastic encasing – buckle them up really well – and then hurl them up to speeds of 120 km/hr. If there is an accident and they die, then there is a need to re-think how we buckle them up.

For me, the increasing need to keep our children ‘safe’ speaks to a [Western] cultural belief that we can somehow cheat death or injury. There is much psychoanalytical literature that suggests we repress our knowledge of the inevitable (death) yet act out in ways that keep this knowledge in the realm of the impossible. In other words, we incorporate risk into our lives (such as driving a car) but we are angered when there are accidents. We use plastics and chemicals with known carcinogens but are confused when a family member gets cancer. We live in ways that flirt with death; yet we think in ways that turn death into an impossible event.

This all might be a little heavy-duty for Tuesday morning, but I feel that it is important to highlight this cultural attitude. Does this outlook effect how parents are in tune with products that allow us to maintain ‘unsafe’ activities while keeping our children ‘safe’ from them? I’m not advocating for the elimination of either, just that we need to acknowledge the paradox inherent in all ‘safety’ products and legislation.

Consider the issue of checking in minor league hockey. What about (dis)allowing children to ride quads? Installing baby-proofing gadgets? As parents, do we hope to avoid injury or death without fully acknowledging that the activity itself will always be risky? Do we need to come to terms with the fact that every day is full of risks that may hurt our children? Because we if don’t come to terms with this fact, we will continue to spend millions on ‘safety’ and make childhood into something that can only be experienced through bubble wrap.

Which brings me to this video. It’s another take on the car seat issue. You might be familiar with the book Freakanomics (an awesome book!). Here, Freakanomics author, Steven Levitt, questions if car seats are really necessary.

9 Responses to “The Paradox of Car Seats”

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  3. 3 Shauna April 9, 2011 at 8:08 am

    Yes, we do need to come to terms with the fact that every day is full of risks that may hurt our children. But then we as parents have to decide what to do about each “risky” activty, weighing the benefits/risks & pros/cons of each activity.

    For example, driving itself is the biggest risk we all take each day, but for most people the benefits & pros of driving outweigh the risks of driving and the cons of not driving so they choose to drive – myself included.

    The next thing to decide is how to secure your child in the car. I choose to keep my kids rear-facing as long as possible, because to us there are no cons (it’s actually more comfortable for most kids!) and research has shown that the risks of not doing so are great (if you ever get in a collision). I also make the decision to drive attentively and follow the rules of the road – again, no cons with this and it reduces our risk of getting in a collision in the first place.

    There is no “right” or “wrong” answer to how to handle risk, just a resulting decision, that each parent has to make for themselves and be comfortable with. Although in some cases government does the risk assessment for parents and puts in laws, like those on mimimum car seat use.

    I would like to post what a fellow car seat tech wrote as a response to parents complaining about the new recommendations.

    “I’m a little disturbed by the number of comments by people who seem genuinely offended and/or angry. There is legitimate research which has PROVEN that rear-facing is safer, and that children should remain in boosters until the seatbelt fits them PROPERLY.

    Why would anyone argue this?
    Why would someone choose to put their child into a potentially dangerous situation?
    Why would you willingly make your child LESS SAFE in a vehicle, when the information is available to educate yourself, and the carseats & booster seats available now are designed to protect your children?

    Really, people. These are our kids we’re talking about. You have the information, and you have the means. Keep them safe. It’s your job.”

    • 4 Mama Tortoise April 13, 2011 at 9:30 am

      Hi Shauna,

      Thanks for your comments. I appreciate the quote from the car seat technician.

      The post was not really intended to argue against the legislation, rather critically how we approach safety issues with our kids. The car seat news was more of an example about how we think about safety. We want to take risks and keep children safe at the same time. This might not sound like an shocking statement, but it illustrates how Westerners live out ‘safety’ and ‘risk’.

      The car seat changes seem straight forward as an isolated example – of course, we want to keep our children safe. But approaching safety and risk as a collection of stories and we begin to see that safety is of high importance to today’s parents. So much so that children are increasingly limited from many childhood activities – like tree climbing. Generally speaking, parents don’t like overt risk for their children, they want safety precautions built-in. In other words, we don’t like to face the true reality of risk.

      I do appreciate your comment, Shauna!

  4. 5 Pamella April 6, 2011 at 5:42 pm

    I love “prevention!” That is the same as I would view/approach health and well-being! Thanks Gillian for bringing this up. I think our society as a whole has become complacent. I would much rather use my doctor’s time to discuss prevention.

  5. 6 Gillian April 5, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    Very thought provoking post, Mama. I am very acutely aware that a good portion of my paycheque is earned because of tragic, 100% preventable accidents. I would gladly hang up the stethoscope and find another way to earn a living if it meant that no other child would be needlessly injured or killed. Thus, injury/illness prevention is a subject that is very close to my heart.

    I say injury prevention as opposed to child safety for exactly the reason you describe in your post. ‘Child safety’ fires in our brains as “If I but this product or follow this recommendation, my child will be immune to injury/death”. “Injury prevention” prompts us to think that yes, my child can be injured and I must play an active roll in in the health and well-being of my child.

    I think that the availability of the plethora of child safety devices has lulled people into a sense of complacency – if I have safety device X, I needn’t worry about situation X harming my child. I think that this belief that a safety device provides some sort of “invincibility cloak” actually leads to more injuries/deaths than would occur without the presence of the device. Case in point: I purchased a change table pad for my baby, complete with a lap-belt style safety harness and various straps for bolting the thing down. Upon bringing my purchase home, I immediately snipped every last strap and belt off of it. Why? Because never would I ever leave my baby on a high change table without one of my hands on her, thus rendering the straps redundant. I also would never want someone else who might change my baby on that table thinking, innocently enough, that if they strap her down, they can take a bathroom break and nothing would happen. A baby can still roll off of the table when strapped in, and the strap gives the added danger of providing a mechanism by which the baby can be hanged.

    Now, I do use certain safety devices and I do think that many safety devices are useful, as long as a caretaker realizes that the device is merely providing a delay in an accident’s occurrence so that the vigilant caretaker can run over and PREVENT the accident. People must also realize that they have to educate their children on how to avoid dangerous situations. A baby gate over the stairs is useless and downright deadly if baby thinks it is there for him to climb on. I guess, long story short, I wish people would see that they don’t need many products to keep their babies safe, and that the products that they do use are not omnipotent. They require a smart caretaker to ensure that the product is effective. Smart use of safety devices would also help people to see that their babies don’t need to be bubble-wrapped – good guidance and common-sense are the most effective (severe)injury preventers.

    In reference to the car seat issue, they without a doubt greatly reduce morbidity and mortality in children involved in car accidents. It is a bit of a conflict of interest, as Mr. Levitt points out, that companies profit off of our fear of our children being injured, but I don’t really believe in government and big business safety profiteering. There really is a great deal of research and engineering that go into these seats and the legislation surrounding them. But, as safe as car seats are engineered, they are useless if installed incorrectly or if children are strapped in them incorrectly.

    I’m not too sure of Mr. Levitt’s research – 4 is a completely negligible sample size, and his claim to have 45000 other data is complicated by the fact that the data is not defined by severity of accident, classification of accident, vehicle size, correctness of car seat use, rear or front facing, child’s location in the car, severity of injury, deaths vs. injuries, etc., etc., etc. I don’t buy it. If there is a cheaper, more user-friendly way to keep children just as safe, I will welcome it with open arms. Until then, we will have to learn to use our car seats properly and not drive 100 in a 60 zone, weaving in and out of traffic and talking on a cell, thinking no harm can come to little Johnny because he’s in his seat.

    Phew! Sorry! I’ve taken up a lot of real-estate on your page! Thank-you for allowing me my time up on the soap box. I get a bit fired-up about accident prevention! Pontification over. =)

    • 7 Mama Tortoise April 6, 2011 at 4:59 pm

      Hi Gillian,

      Pontification is always welcome! I love it when readers respond in such detail!

      I like your point about ‘injury prevention’ vs ‘child safety’ because it does frame things in a slightly different light. And you’re right about all the ‘safety’ devices being useless if people don’t understand that there is still a risk involved.

      I just want to reiterate again that I’m not anti car seat. It’s more of a reminder that we can never be fully insulated from risk. Rather, we need to accept death in order to really enjoy life. Otherwise we only live in fear. We can get obsessed about every safety feature while not looking at the risk we want to participate in. Every safety product or ‘injury prevention’ legislation is a paradox of wanting to participate in risk while insulating ourselves from it.

      (Funny that you mentioned the baby gate on the stairs. We made the decision to never have one so that our girls learn to go up and down the stairs safely. Sure, we’ve had some tumbles, but now they are both very adept at climbing and descending. In other words, I wonder if avoiding the ‘safety’ gate altogether helped them to understand the real danger of falling and learning how to avoid it.)

      Thanks for your great response, Gillian.

  6. 8 Pamella April 5, 2011 at 7:06 pm

    Agree with your point of view. I find it similar to our Western practice of medicine where we treat the symptom rather than the cause.

    This society has a very bad habit of thinking that the “system” (government, products/gadgets) are there to protect us from the sometimes poor decisions we make, or rather the absence of critical thinking.

    It seems that it is much easier for people to think and feel that the cause of their ailments must be something foreign and only curable with a prescription instead of taking a long hard look in the mirror and actually thinking that their body is alive which includes all the organs, etc, and how is it that I am treating them.

    Most people will apply that critical thinking to their vehicles, vices such as gambling, gaming, etc, but totally ignore their body as an entity that needs time, patience, and maintenance as well.

    So back to the car seat. I remember a time, and I know you do to, where maybe we weren’t in car seats all that much and certainly did not wear a seat belt. Mom and dad were smart enough to not drive like jackasses and to be aware of other drivers and dangers. That’s the potential risk we take everyday when we get into our cars, with or without children, clean roads or a blizzard, speeding or not speeding.

    Sometimes I feel that people in our society have no awareness of their environments or even the basics when it comes to survival and the origins of stuff.

    Great conversation topic!

    • 9 Mama Tortoise April 6, 2011 at 4:21 pm

      Thanks for commenting, Pam. You’re right, the way we treat our bodies has a similar argument – we rely on ‘health standards’ to keep us healthy rather than consider our everyday behaviour.

      And yes, I most certainly remember tumbling around in the backseat of the old family Ford. No seat belts in sight. We’d make forts in the space between the front seat and the foot area of the back seat. Funny how we all survived 😉


      By the way, I’m adding your blog onto my ‘friend’ section!

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