My friends, it comes as no surprise that I would eventually write a post that would make you cringe. Because I know how many of you are excellent mothers, concerned with your children’s safety and well-being. And yet, I probably disagree with many of you on the single most divisive issue of the past few years in mommyland.
Car seat safety.
It started with a few articles in Parent’s magazine over the importance of removing winter coats before car seats are buckled. The before and after showed the hazards of bulky winter coats disintegrating in a crash and leaving your children with a loose harness. Next came a YouTube video about a year ago, circulating Facebook with a cover image of a toddler in head bandages and traction. The message? Turn your two year old rear facing or he will die in the next car crash. Then, the share-able picture with statistics of rear-facing children and front facing children in accidents, with forward facing children dying in droves. Then the AAP guidelines recommending all children rear face for as long as possible. All this is actually fine and well, statistics, anecdotes, and professionals coming together to change the way people use their carseats.
But, the reality of the carseat guidelines became controversy in the comments sections and intro sentences to these social media items. The line was quickly drawn in the sand: comply or die. The moms who weighed in were proudly boasting that their 6 year old was rear-facing in her 5-point harness, and was never going to turn around. Others shared how police officers bestowed their gratitude on the supermoms who stripped their children bare to the waist in the dead of winter to eliminate potential floppy belts.
And on it rolled: never buy a used car seat, never wash your car seat, never wash the straps on the carseat, your car seat expires, check with a licensed professional for installation, never use LATCH, always use LATCH, rear facing weight limits, make sure the seat only wiggles one inch, never use a seatbelt tightener (my friend actually had one confiscated at a complimentary carseat check-in–say what?!), turn rear facing. Broken legs are better than broken necks!!! Never have the stakes been higher–your children’s very lives hang in the balance of your stubbornness! Who could put a price on safety?!
Wow. That’s a lot to take in.
And when someone pulls on me that hard, I resist in equal or greater measure. If someone had simply said, in a gentle way “We know these guidelines are restrictive and will make it much harder to make your children comfortable or get into and out of the car. We were hoping the findings wouldn’t show these results for that very reason. While we understand that for those reasons, many parents will choose not to adopt the new safety guidelines, we feel compelled to share that this information is the best we have available, and we feel confident that they do significantly reduce injuries to children involved in car crashes. Please contact us at (email) if you would like some more information or just some sympathy about what a pain in the tush this is!”
But no. Instead, the outcry was “Good parents comply, inconvenience be damned.” And that’s when I got to thinking. Are there other factors involved in crash survival ratings? Are carseat safety rules truly the panacea for all driving risk for children, or should we consider (and discuss) other factors? To name a few:
- What kind of car are you driving? What are its crash ratings?
- Have the brakes been maintained?
- Do you follow at least (speed limit/10) car lengths from the car in front of you?
- Do you use turn signals?
- Do you drive the speed limit?
- Do you use your cell phone while driving?
- Do you eat in the car?
- Do you listen to and use the radio while driving?
- Do you practice defensive driving?
- Have you been trained in evasive maneuvers?
- Do you drive the speed limit?
- Do you drive during rush hour?
- Do you drive during holiday weekends?
- Do you leave your children home from all but the most necessary trips?
- Do you adjust children’s entertainment while the car is in motion?
- Do you drive on the highway?
- Do you drive on rural roads?
- Do you stop for railroad crossings?
All of these factors, and many more, are equally important in your ability to avoid a crash and survive one if it should occur.
Did you know that according to Larry Elder’s book “The Ten Things You Can’t Say in America,” traffic deaths would be reduced by half if we reduced the national speed limit to 35 MPH? In 1974, in order to reduce fuel consumption, Congress reduced the national speed limit to 55 MPH. Traffic fatalities decreased 16% (before carseats were used, by the way) from 54,052 deaths in 1973 to 45, 156 deaths in 1974. In 1987, rural roads were given permission to increase their speed limits to 65 MPH, and not only were there more speeders caught going higher than 65 MPH across the state (48% increase in states that adopted it, with only 18% increase in the states that didn’t), the fatalities rose between 15 and 22% (based on the study). (Great PDF powerpoint review article here: Ferguson NHSTA.gov Presentation )
It seems to me that we are only scratching the surface by placing the burden of crash risk and survivability into the laps of moms, their children and their commitment to Graco and Britax. Why are we not lobbying congress for the reduction of ALL RISK of traffic deaths?
And there’s a simple reason. Because there’s no money in it. There’s no way that folks are going to wait twice as long to get where they are going, and no way we are going to wait twice as long to get the goods we need delivered to our doors. So, what do we do instead? Scare the tar out of families that they might get blamed for their children’s life threatening injuries or death that may result from a car accident. And then give them a way to take away their guilt. And let them pay for it.
Outside of the stated reasons, let’s look at the secondary reasons people are pushing this: Brand new carseats. $250 a pop. Rear facing to remind you every day to be grateful that your car seat takes away interaction time, but adds safety. Expiration dates to ensure you keep buying. Rejection of washed harnesses to get you to buy a new one. Rejection of used car seats keeps you going to the retail market to get one.
The new guidelines add value to carseats and instills magical protective qualities on them to make them the saving grace of childhood, and the guilt panacea of parenthood. Although a parent whose children have been through a fatal crash or a crash with severe injuries will have a different feeling, the one we assume we’ll have as we make our buying decisions is “I’ll never have to worry that someone will blame me for taking unnecessary risks.”
This is why we vaccinate when our children are not at risk for a disease. This is why we give birth in hospitals when they put our low-risk children and ourselves at risk. (not statements I believe most of my readers will act on) But, how much of it is handing over our guilt to another person because the social acceptability makes it unbearable to consider the alternative?
Here’s the secret. No one is going to think of who is to blame in a car crash, in a vaccine injury, or a birth injury/death more than you. No one will ever lie awake at night wondering why you went with the promise of safety insurance, when you may have put your child in harm’s way. What if you had the one kind of crash that makes rear facing a greater hazard? What if you blacked out in a crash in winter and your children suffered extreme hypothermia because they weren’t wearing coats? What if you had a genetic component that made your child respond violently to a 7-in-1 shot? What if you had agreed to an intervention that led to a poor birth outcome? If you follow the rules, the world will never blame you. And, because they believe the gimmicks you used to believe, too, they will offer the cold comfort that “you did everything you could.”
Because the secret lie under the cult of carseat/vaccine/hospital birth safety is this: “We offer you sympathy from the world in case the worst happens.” And trust me, if that is the case, you won’t want it. You’ll blame yourself no matter what for even bringing your child into a world where bad things could happen.
So, if you want to follow all of the carseat safety rules, go for it. I don’t think it’s sinful to do so. But, if you then plan to attack anyone who chooses freedom and what works for their family, budget, and feasibility, know that some of us can see right through it. The carseat debate has been used to hurt without discrimination.
A mom who had just lost her baby on Easter posted just days after her son died what a blessing it was to find a convertible carseat at the Goodwill, because it wasn’t garage sale season yet. And you would have thought she just said she was going to tie that kid to the bumper. (This blessed woman, who you should be following on Facebook at His Hands, His Feet Today responded with kindness and asked all of these carseat experts to please consider volunteering to help parents in inner-city hospitals learn how to use their carseats properly, because she saw so many who had no idea when she was picking up her precious son.) Other friends have posted they can’t take any extra children to carpool because they won’t put a child in the front seat. Some have said a factor in deciding whether to adopt or have more children is that their car can’t hold another carseat. Some worry for months and ask public forgiveness for switching their 6 year old to a booster. Some advise other adoptive or missionary moms not to post car photos from their time in country, because it’s not worth the headache of explaining the culture of carseats is very localized to the US and Europe, and not actually a moral imperative.
Someone even commented that the sunflower pattern carseat photographed in this picture I posted last year expired in 2009.
We’re still using it. Not because I don’t care about safety, but because driving safety isn’t a single-faceted objective to me. And I scratch my head and wonder–why the inconsistency? Haven’t I read status updates about road trips to a museum on a rainy day? (risk) Stopping at a drive-through for dinner on the way to soccer? (risk) Being pulled over for speeding and explaining it to the kids? (risk)
When are we going to call a spade a spade and stop worshiping at the altar of the car seat? Do what you can, assess your risk, and leave the guilt behind. Find another item on the list above and work on that first. We are all just doing our best.