car seats vs. seatbelts

So it may not be as cut and dried as everyone thinks; car seats (over age 2) may not actually make any difference. Good luck finding a politician who is against car seat and booster seat legislation, though; that would be political suicide. Proving once again that government often doesn’t work in our best interests? (There have been other examples of dumb gov’t safety laws recently, based on zero real deaths or injuries; I’ll see if I can dig some of them out of my memory).

The Seat-Belt Solution – New York Times

Perhaps the single most compelling statistic about car seats in the NHTSA manual was this one: ‘‘They are 54 percent effective in reducing deaths for children ages 1 to 4 in passenger cars.’‘

But 54 percent effective compared with what? The answer, it turns out, is this: Compared with a child’s riding completely unrestrained. There is another mode of restraint, meanwhile, that doesn’t cost $200 or require a four-day course to master: seat belts.

Even a quick look at the FARS data reveals a striking result: among children 2 and older, the death rate is no lower for those traveling in any kind of car seat than for those wearing seat belts. There are many reasons, of course, that this raw data might be misleading. Perhaps kids in car seats are, on average, in worse wrecks. Or maybe their parents drive smaller cars, which might provide less protection.

But no matter what you control for in the FARS data, the results don’t change. In recent crashes and old ones, in big vehicles and small, in one-car crashes and multiple-vehicle crashes, there is no evidence that car seats do a better job than seat belts in saving the lives of children older than 2. (In certain kinds of crashes — rear-enders, for instance — car seats actually perform worse.) The real answer to why child auto fatalities have been falling seems to be that more and more children are restrained in some way. Many of them happen to be restrained in car seats, since that is what the government mandates, but if the government instead mandated proper seat-belt use for children, they would likely do just as well / without the layers of expense, regulation and anxiety associated with car seats.

Followup material can be found at Freakonomics

posted at 8:41 pm on Tuesday, July 12, 2005 in Current Events, Health, Links, Science and Technology | Comments (4)


  1. Heather says:

    As a certified child restraint technician I am offended by your comments but at the same time I understand what u mean. First off if someone knows what they are doing it only takes a second to teach how to use the child seat properly. And the price of seats are outragious yes, that is why I work on donations so that I can buy them at discount and I sell them for even less then I pay for them. If you need help or know anyone who does they can email me at please try not to down carseats they save lives. The only reason they only reduce is because there is no way to stop car crashes from happening unless you just dont drive.

  2. Harald Koch says:

    First of all, we’re talking about child seats and booster seats, not infant seats (as you mention on your weblog). Second, it appears you didn’t read more on car seats , or you would have been less offended, I think.

    It’s true that statistical data is often biased; see How to Understand Statistics for a discussion. It’s also extremely difficult to be unemotional about this particular subject. My emotional response is “for $80, why take chances?”; my seven year old has two booster seats, one in each car.

    But I do trust that Steven Levitt has actually done his homework on this one. We cannot for sure explain why the statistics are as they are, but we cannot dispute the numbers themselves…

  3. Mike Hickman says:

    AS a child restraint TECH info like you are printing and saying does not help us who are tring to keep kids safe. There are a lot of programs that sell low cost car seats also the program that i’m has free car seats for parant’s who can’t afford them.

  4. Harald Koch says:

    You’re a little late to the discussion, Mike. More uselessly, you haven’t actually argued for or against any of the data.

    I know “TECH“s aren’t scientists, but you’re still in a better position than your average joe to at least attempt to argue for or against.

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