Two incidents have happened lately to make me question the wisdom of the car seat. I know, radical of me. And in general, obviously, I want my child – and all children – to be safe in cars. Although it occurs to me that at a certain age, they’d probably fine in a regular seat in all but the most dire of car crashes, and the most dire of car crashes can have totally unpredictable and uneven results. Like, what if you’re in such a horrific car crash that you die instant on impact, but your child survives in his/her supersafe carseat – only to have to burn alive in the horrible fire that takes your car in the next instant? Is that really better? I know that’s horrible and grizzly, but it’s what thinking about car seats leads to.
Anyway, last week, I stopped by a friend’s house with Zoe to drop something off and socialize a bit. She has two kids, who are two and four, and on that day, she was also watching her 5(?)-month-old niece, something she does regularly. She doesn’t have a car seat for the niece, and also the niece is on a fairly rigid schedule, so she can’t go out when she has her, which makes her own kids (and her, probably) a little stir-crazy. So as I was leaving, to go to the grocery store, the four-year-old asked to come with me. Now, I would have taken her in a heartbeat. She’s an enjoyable and well-behaved kid, my kid worships her, and even if neither of those things were true, it’s a trip to the grocery store and the opportunity to give another mom one less kid to worry about for an hour. But. No car seat. So no trip.
This week, my mother-in-law ended up having a mom and three-and-a-half-year-old kid stuck at her house without transport. My mother-in-law would have given them a ride home, obviously. But. No car seat. So the pair walked home, quite a distance, along a busy road that doesn’t have consistent sidewalks. Which is obviously safer than a three-year-old child just being strapped in the back.
And leaving aside the “I rode in the regular old front seat of the car when I was four and I’m fine” theme, this to me is one of the examples of perhaps overweaning safety concerns eroding the ability to create community, to encourage people to do favors for others, to make the lives of families just plain easier and more pleasant. So what do I want to do about it? Not eradicate car seats, surely?! Well, no. Not exactly. Although I do think that we keep them in car seats for too long. I had two kids in my Hebrew School class who were in fourth grade and still in boosters. Granted, they were small, but seriously. But especially for the 0-2 or 3 set, I do think one needs something other than the regular car seat. But couldn’t we treat them as guidelines instead of etched-in-stone rules after the age of, say, three? Like, when faced with the choice between walking three miles with a preschooler on a busy road with sparse sidewalks, or riding in the very safe car of a reasonable driver without the added protection of a car seat, shouldn’t that mom be able to say, “You know, I think driving will be safer,” rather than, “CAR SEAT CAR SEAT CAR SEAT.”?
Or couldn’t we put in better sidewalks and more public transporation in suburbs? PLEASE? There are kids in my neighborhood who take a bus home from a school about a mile away. Because of the chosen route, the bus ride takes sometimes forty-five minutes, even an hour. To go a mile. But there are not adequate sidewalks between here and there. So a bus it must be.
Or couldn’t we do something about car seats to make them easier to use? Like, obviously, if my friend’s four-year-old’s booster seat was easy to pop in and out of a car, then we could have done that in two seconds and I could have taken her kid to the grocery store. Also, there was a chapter in Superfreakonomics that I found especially intriguing. They write about how the system we have for car seats – in which one of several companies make the car, and one of several other companies make the car seat, and parents have to figure out how to make the two connect safely – is ridiculous. In point of fact, it would make a lot more sense for cars themselves to make things that would be safe for children. For instance, they could produce their own infant seats that fit nicely into their own backseats, and then they could have conversion kits for every seat in the back so that a child of any size would be comfortable and safe in it. Like, cushions could pop out to reveal five-point seat belts, and regular seat belts could be made adjustable to different heights. But of course car companies don’t want the liability, which is its own ridiculousness.
This to me is just one example of over-legislation and hypervigilance destroying that which makes having a family – that which makes life, really – pleasant: community, kindness, agency. And the brunt of it is born by parents, and really, the brunt is born by mothers.