Posted on March 14, 2003



Pennsylvanians bound by car seat junk science


Daniel Clark



On February 21st, a new Pennsylvania state law took effect, which mandates the use of child car seats for all children under the age of eight. Signed last year by outgoing Republican Governor Mark Schweiker, the bill is tremendously inconsiderate of the people who will now have to abide by it. But then, when the safety of The Children is at stake, who has time to waste by considering the ramifications of his actions?

SUVs have a friend in Pennsylvania

Previously, the law required child safety car seats only for children under the age of four. Doubling the age requirement has caused many complications, none of which seems to have been taken into consideration by the since-departed Gov. Schweiker, or by the state legislature. For starters, no seven year-old is going to go quietly back to a car seat he thinks he outgrew when he was a toddler. So what are parents to do, physically force their flailing, screaming children into the seats, in full view of a parking lot full of people who might report them to the spanking police?

It was relatively easy for parents to obey the old car seat law, because they're always with their two and three year-olds, so they could make sure the seats were always there for them. Once their kids are old enough to go to school and play tee-ball, however, logistical problems arise. What if a boy's mother usually picks him up from school, but one day, an emergency prevents her from showing up, so she calls her husband at work? Making it to the school isn't a problem for him, but the new law is, because the child seat is in his wife's car. In order to assure compliance, the couple will have to buy one seat for every child under eight, then multiply that by the number of vehicles they own. Even then, it would be illegal for them to adapt to other unexpected situations, like giving rides to any of their kids' friends.

The revised law will place a terrible burden on large families that have quite enough worries already. Since expanding the age range also expands the number of seats needed, it will not be unheard of for families to require five child safety seats in the same vehicle. Where will they put them? You're not allowed to use one in the front seat, because the federally mandated safety air bags might kill the child. You can probably only put two in the back, because most seats' installation requires the presence of shoulder straps, and the middle seat will usually only have a lap belt. A third row of seating will allow two more child seats. So where do you put the fifth child?

Even in a family with only three kids, there's a good chance that all of them will be under eight years old at the same time. This will increase the need for those dastardly, planet-destroying SUVs. The Pennsylvania legislature shows no concern for the additional costs -- not just for the seats themselves, but also for more expensive, lower mileage vehicles -- incurred by their constituents.

The hastily-conceived measure doesn't even provide a loophole for taxi cabs. A cab driver can't legally pick up a fare if one of the passengers is under eight ... unless the parents happen to walk around toting a child car seat for just such an occasion. The cab driver cannot supply a seat on his own, because he needs his trunk space for passengers' luggage.

Another detail that was overlooked was the impact on drivers from out of state. If a husband and wife from Ohio are headed to the Jersey shore for vacation with their seven year-old daughter, the law will demand that they buy a child seat just for their drive through Pennsylvania. How many people will even be aware of a child safety seat law in a neighboring state, and do they really deserve a $100 fine if they aren't?

How do the police even know whether a child is seven or eight years old? It's not as if kids that age carry identification. And what if a family has two kids, aged eight and seven, and the seven year old is bigger? The basis for the law is the theory that ordinary seat belts are not effective in protecting small children. Size, and not age, is the relevant factor. Yet, according to state law, we should protect the seven year-old while leaving the smaller eight year-old exposed to danger.

An essential civil servant?

Furthermore, there are fully mature people in existence who are physically no bigger than a lot of second-graders. Where is Pennsylvania's compassion for midgets and dwarves? Rather than quizzing parents about their children's ages, maybe policemen should carry wooden cutouts in their cars, like the ones that are used in amusement parks. All those who are taller than Coppo the Clown may ride without a state-mandated safety seat.

Of course, that would only make sense if passenger safety were the motivation behind the new law, which it evidently is not. A violation of the child safety seat law is a secondary offense, which means that you can't be pulled over for that alone, but can only be fined for it if you've already been cited for another violation. If Pennsylvania's legislators are really so concerned about protecting children's lives, then how can they allow parents to continue endangering their kids, just as long as they don't run any red lights?

Why, moreover, if this law were consistent in its stated concern for child safety, would it demand that parents handle their six and seven year-olds so delicately in their own cars, only to ship them off to school in buses which are equipped with no restraining devices at all? (The requirement applies to school vans with capacities of ten or fewer, but not to full-sized buses.) If the need for child safety seats in cars is such an emergency, then how can ten trips a week on a rumbling yellow deathtrap be no big deal?

Requiring school buses to supply child safety seats would, of course, be a nightmare. An elementary school bus would need enough car seats for all the first and second graders, while leaving enough other seats available for students in the three grades above them. More buses would then be needed, because their capacity would be reduced, due to the bulk of the seats. What's more, kids that age would be able to unfasten themselves. There's no way a school bus driver could be expected to maintain control.

These complications are obvious. But then, so are the inconveniences and confusion being imposed by the state on ordinary families. It's hard not to notice that schools, many of them being government institutions, are accorded more consideration than private citizens are.

Due to a predictably high volume of complaints, the state government is considering a bill which would delay the new law's enforcement until August. One might ask what is it, then, that scared them into slapping together such a piece of legislation with so little forethought in the first place. Has there been some kind of epidemic of Pennsylvanian children being killed by their seat belts in car accidents? Hardly.

A group called Partners for Child Passenger Safety (PCPS) -- formed by the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania, and the State Farm insurance company -- has been conducting studies to promote the use of child safety seats. In a two-year study completed in September of 2000, PCPS warns ominously that, "more than 90% of 4-8 year old children who were seriously injured were not restrained in a booster seat."

... Oh, but wait a minute. It also notes that "88% of 4-8 year olds in Pennsylvania are restrained in an adult seat belt." The findings of this study don't indicate what percentage of those injured were wearing seat belts, but only says that over 90 percent were not using a booster seat. It seems reasonable to infer that, once those who weren't restrained at all are subtracted from that total, the number of those who were injured while wearing seat belts would drop close enough to that 88 percent mark to be well within a typical margin for error.

Details, details

Despite this, PCPS tells us, under the same heading as these other two factoids, that "children restrained in seat belts instead of a car seat or booster seat are 3.5 times more likely to suffer a serious injury. (Pediatrics, June 2000)" How can this be, when those other figures indicate something close to a one to one ratio? Well, take a look at the citation. To support this last piece of data, PCPS cites its own study published in a journal produced by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Why does it not mention this same study in regard to its other findings?

The reason, as found in an abstract of the Pediatrics article, is that the conclusion that children riding without child safety seats are in 3.5 times more danger is derived from a study of children aged 2 to 5. Yet PCPS is passing off this information as if it were relevant to strapping down children aged 4 to 8. How frightening would the results of the Pediatrics study be if the injuries to two and three year-olds were eliminated from the equation (as they should be, since they're already required in Pennsylvania to be secured in child car seats)?

This is a classic example of junk science, which may explain why the state's representatives seem so unconcerned about all the loose ends. Unfortunately, politicians tend to accept the axiom that perception is reality, so for the sake of their own images, they'll respond to crises that don't necessarily exist. In this case, the perception has been created that The Children are endangered, so here come the state politicians to make whatever public gesture they deem necessary to create the perception that they're saving The Children.

What Pennsylvanians should do is establish a new organization, and have it conduct a study that shows a high mortality rate for the careers of state representatives who saddle their constituents with costly, inconvenient and confusing laws that have no discernible benefit. Perhaps then, the creators of this ill-conceived bill will feel driven to reconsider it, in some way more meaningful than simply giving people an extra five months to dread it.



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