Infant Car Seats and Child Safety: What's the Marginal Benefit?
By Bryan Caplan
Back in the fifties, kids didn’t even have seatbelts. My dad tells me that in 1971 I came home from the hospital the old-fashioned way: In my mother’s arms. Nowadays, in contrast, we transport our babies using special infant carriers – and face a lot of propaganda about the right way to use them. (Consumer Reports claims that 4 out of 5 seats are installed incorrectly; Wikipedia cites a piece asserting that “In 1997, six out of ten children who were killed in vehicle crashes were not correctly restrained.” Hmm.)
Since I’m collecting the basic facts on child safety, I decided to take a quick look into this. The results:
Youth Mortality from Motor Vehicle Accidents per 100,000
1. Motor vehicle safety has improved a lot less than you (or at least I) would have expected. In fact, it improved quite a bit less than average. The overall fatal accident rate for kids today is about a quarter of what it was in 1950. The motor vehicle rate is about 40% of its 1950 level.
2. Contrary to what you’d expect, infant car safety has not improved a lot more than the safety of older children. Dubner and Levitt sharply distinguish infant seats – which they consider a big improvement over “riding shotgun on mom’s lap” – from child seats – which they argue are no better than seatbelts. Looking at the raw facts makes me wonder.
3. Safety improved about as much for older kids (who usually just use seat belts) as it did for younger kids. So there must be many reasons why car travel is safer than it used to be; car seats can’t be more than one piece of the puzzle.
Suppose that 25% of the improvement in infant safety came from child seats. That’s 1.2 fatalities per 100,000. If you plug in a conventional $7M “value of life,” that comes out to $84 of value for your baby’s first year. Legality aside, it’s still probably worth installing a cheap child seat. But it’s probably not worth spending hours doing what I did six years ago: perfecting your installation technique. (Now, of course, that’s a sunk cost!) And if your cousin offers to take your kid to a movie, it’s almost definitely a mistake to refuse out of fear that you won’t transfer the seat correctly.
If the average American read this, I suspect that he’d consider me a bad parent just for thinking such thoughts. My response: A good parent is prudent, not paranoid. While you should put a high value on your child’s safety, it’s OK to find facts and weigh trade-offs. Would you be willing to drive an extra five miles with your child every week to save a little money at Walmart? If so, you probably shouldn’t be ashamed to learn that your seat installation technique is only average.