Authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner are making the media rounds again. They have a new book, SuperFreakonomics. Yes, ironically, you can buy it through our Amazon affiliate program link and we make some money advocating child passenger safety if you buy their book! Aint capitalism great? Anyway, as you may or may not remember, these authors had some interesting research over the last few years that claimed to show a seatbelt is just about as effective as a booster or other child safety seat in preventing child passenger fatalities for toddlers and older kids. In a New York Times article from 2005, they even suggested parents might spend their money on a DVD player instead of a carseat or booster seat and get the same result for kids 2 and over.
That was a very controversial finding, because they used the very same government FARS database often used by expert researchers in the area of injury prevention. The insinuation was that the government and child safety seat manufacturers conspired to foist these expensive devices upon parents, even though they offer minimal benefit. Critics spoke up quickly, touting that the authors didn’t consider crashes with injuries, that their crash testing didn’t measure abdominal injury or that their conclusions were flawed due to various other factors. Later, studies were finally published that showed child safety seats and boosters did show significant improvements in safety for both fatalities and injuries, using the same government statistics as Freakonomics used. The authors then countered with new data of their own. The differences? Each set of researchers apparently used the different sets of data or used the same statistics in a different way. They controlled variables in a different manner, perhaps over a different period of years or by omitting various factors they considered to skew the data inappropriately for one reason or another. So, it is still very difficult for me to tell you who is right or even who to trust on this issue.
It is also very confusing for a parent or caregiver who shouldn’t be expected to read or understand the nuances in technical or statistical research papers at all. It’s also possibly messing around with numbers when the lives of children may be at stake. Last year, I asked, “If all these authors really had the interest of saving a child’s life, why don’t they get together and figure out the real story?” I’m still curious as to how the authors restrained all their young children in cars over the last few years. Did they put their book money where their mouth is, so to speak? State law is a nice way to avoid that question, but the fines aren’t too prohibitive for someone who really wants to set an example (not to mention the savings on child safety seats!). I’m also curious as to whether they had a genuine concern in the topic. Did they just hype the topic again to promote sales, or have they also done any work in the years since the first book to improve the safety of children in automobiles through new laws or technologies that reflect their opinions? Finally, and perhaps most importantly for advocates, did the authors ever compare a seat belt to a child safety seat when correct use is assumed and a newer vehicle is involved (say those made in the last 10 years when lower anchors, top tethers and lockable seatbelt systems are generally present along with better child restraints)?
Well, I still don’t have answers to any of those questions. I did, however, read the section on car seats while browsing their new hardcover at the bookstore. Unfortunately, it did not appear that they responded to the more recent studies from peer-reviewed journals that have been published in the years since their last book, particularly those that contradicted their claims. Based on what I’ve seen in the book, online and on TV, it appears they mostly recycled the same information for publicity purposes. The footnotes did indicate that they have a new paper being published soon, so hopefully that will include more information. On the plus side, any publicity could be considered a good thing when it comes to the #1 killer of kids. Most motor vehicle crash fatalities are indeed to unrestrained kids and/or involving drivers who are impaired or distracted. Simply restraining your kids in the back seat and driving with your attention on the road, without alcohol or drugs in your system, are among the most important things you can do for the safety of your child.
While I may be proven wrong someday, for now I strongly believe that a child safety seat installed and used correctly according to manufacturer instructions offers another significant improvement in safety for kids. I suggest that anyone who reads any publication touting advice contrary to that provided by the American Academy of Pediatrics do the following. First, write the author, reporter or blogger and ask them to tell you the value of your child’s life in dollars. Economists and government researchers both have such figures to justify action or inaction when it comes to programs that may save lives. Next, call your hospital and ask them to give you an estimate for an emergency room visit, surgery and the subsequent hospital stay for seatbelt syndrome injuries, the type kids get when a poorly fitted lap belt goes into their tummy. Now, ask those same authors if they follow their own advice. Finally, ask if they are willing to stake their reputation, along with that amount of money, if your child dies or is seriously injured because you took their advice.
With those questions answered, at least you have a bit more than just statistics from two camps of researchers in order to make your decision on whether a carseat is worth it or not. Recently, one of the Freakonomics authors seemed agreeable to some type of dialogue. Hopefully, the experts in the government, industry and injury prevention will take him up on the offer and sort out all these seemingly fast and loose statistics. Given the importance of this issue, don’t they all owe that to our children, who can’t make sound decisions regarding their own well being? What good are we as parents if we keep getting conflicting information and can’t make those sound decisions, either? Child Passenger Safety. It’s such a freaky scene, indeed.