Why I Hate Car Seat Laws

Car seats in their present form were just becoming available and popular when I gave birth to my first child. As a child who had been raised in the day when many cars still did not have seat belts and when a car seat was only to give parents a place to put the kid, not protect the kid, I did not quite grasp the importance of their use. Don’t get me wrong, my kids rode in car seats, but before the days of mandatory car seat laws we did have the occasional time when we actually drove the car with the child not fastened. As time went on, and more children came into the family, we became diligent using car seats and seat belts, and I understood how important their use was.

Over the last 30 years I have seen an evolution of laws that began with requiring you to belt in your infant, then toddler, then 3, 4, 6, and now 8 year old into a child restraint system. When the first car seat laws first came out I was a big fan. I was not in favor of seat belt laws, but infants cannot make the choice for themselves as to whether they would prefer to be restrained or become a projectile in the event of a crash. I felt that our youngest citizens should be protected and that a car seat law helping parents understand this importance.

Unfortunately, I think as a society we have crossed a line from protecting the youngest children of society, to a plethora of laws that invades more than it protects. Sure, a 4, 6 or 8 year old will sustain fewer injuries in an accident with a restraint system designed for their size, but past the age of 2 there is no difference in mortality rates for use of a car seat vs. a regular car seat belt. Heck, all of us would fare better in an accident with a 5 point harness seat belt system, but at some point expense and logistics has to be balanced with the optimum of safety. How do the parents of today even follow the law when kids are required to be belted in until the age of 8? Does everyone have a car full of booster seats for their kids’ friends? Do you pick up the neighbors with a car seat in hand to drive them to school? Are cars even made big enough for multiple car seats in the back? Or, do we just ignore the law at times and use the next best thing, a seat belt?

All of these logistical problems seemed mute when I heard a news story that I found shocking about a current car seat law. So, apparently a law (I believe in the State of California) has been passed that a parent will have remaining living children taken away if their unrestrained child is killed in a motor vehicle accident. Sounds fine on the face, after all, a parent who would not properly restrain their child in the car is probably negligent in other areas. Well, the story goes this law was recently enacted when a father (no mother in the picture) lost 2 children to the state after his 18 month old daughter was killed in an auto accident. The accident was not the father’s fault (someone ran a light), but still it seems like no excuse for not using a car seat until you hear the rest of the details. The father was driving to the hospital because the young daughter broke her arm and her car seat was strapped into the father’s car, which he had loaned to a friend. So, Dad borrowed another car, presumable with no car seat, and had the child’s aunt hold the baby (presumably in pain) on the way to the hospital.

Have we lost our minds? Here this poor father is trying to do his best to raise his children, he is undoubtedly grief-stricken from losing one child, and now the others are taken away. What one of us in the same situation would not do that same thing? What one of us have not, in an emergency or unexpected situation, made a choice for our child that may not be the most safe situation, but for the circumstances at the time felt it the best choice?

I think it is time to step back and look at the purpose of laws. Laws like this are presumably designed to shape behaviors. Do they serve their purpose? Is this the best way to shape behavior, or is there a better way? Have we moved from behavior shaping to punitive measures? And if so, why do we want to punish a parent who just lost a child?

So, that is my take on current car seat laws. I think they are just one, of many, good ideas that have just gone too far.

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