American in Spain

Making Decisions About Car Seats

June 13, 2010

thumbSometimes it seems like parenting is one big series decisions about trading comfort for safety. My child is tall and lanky, so it has taken her forever to reach the magical 9 kg threshold in which the car seat manufacturers say she can face forward in the vehicle. In her rear-facing seat, she looks, and is, horribly uncomfortable. As her tall and lanky father who takes a couple transatlantic flights a year, I sympathize. My daughter, her mother, and I have all been looking forward to when we can flip her around to face forwards. Doing some research on the subject of car seat safety lead me to this page, which claims (bold theirs):

Extended rear-facing, beyond one year and [9 kilograms], has big safety advantages that parents should strongly consider. In fact, the most recent study on this subject shows that toddlers are up to five times safer if they remain rear-facing until age two. Turning baby's car seat around isn't a milestone to rush on. It's actually a step down in safety, so don't be in a hurry to make the big switch.

I believe it. After a cursory look at the physics involved, it makes a lot of sense that, for frontal collisions, at least, facing backwards must be safer. But the same physics applies to all passengers, and at some point we decide that the comfort of facing forwards is worth the risk.

Four years ago, when I saw one of my favorite TED talks, I made a mental note to go back and re-watch it when contemplating just this issue. The talk is by economist Steven Levitt, examining the data involving in child automobile fatalities to see just how effective car seats are. His findings were astonishing: Car seats do nothing more than the adult seat belt to prevent death after age two. You don't believe it, do you? It's a tough pill to swallow, and he even likens the psychology around car seats to a placebo, namely that it just feels better to be doing, and paying for, something rather than nothing.

In the end, we have succumbed to the attractiveness of a single-investment car seat that is approved from 9 kg up to twelve years old. Even if I had never learned of Levitt's study, that upper limit would seem a little ridiculous to me. Do sixth graders really ride in car seats to middle school? We still have plenty of time to think about and decide when to stop car seat use, but I can't imagine my daughter still using the car seat much past the end of Obama's second term.

We are also going to start using the forward facing car seat immediately, despite her being a few grams shy of the nine kilogram threshold. It's a risk, yes, but I have to believe that there is some added safety provided by the increased driver concentration as a consequence of reduced backseat screaming. As I said, parenting is about weighing trade-offs between comfort and safety, and living with the constant fear that some decision you make may bring harm to your child, a fear so strong that entire industries are built on it.