With so many kids, I have gone through my share of car seats. I have had three rear facing seats, two convertible seats, two front facing seats and one booster seat over the years. I never questioned the benefits of a properly fitting and secured car seat for infants: weak neck muscles and tiny size make rear facing car seats a “no brainer.” These seats save lives, especially when I consider that I was brought home from the hospital in my mother’s arms, no car seat or restraints at all. The laws of physics dictate that should there have been a sharp stop, there is no way she could have held onto me: I would have turned into the equivalent of a launched 50 lb cannon ball. Clearly it is better to keep baby safe in their car seat.
However, as my babies have gotten older, I have struggled with the car seat issue. Truth be told: my kids do not like car or booster seats, and sometimes I wonder if they really do make my older children safer. Now the American Academy of Pediatrics have announced that they believe children should be in child restraints even longer than previously recommended. They now claim children should remain rear facing until they meet they weight restrictions of their car seat. This would mean keeping your child rear facing until many of them are two or older. Currently, most children make the transition from rear to front facing at the one year mark. Under this recommendation, my five year old would still be in his rear facing car seat, feet scrunched up, because he still has not the 35 lb weight limit.
The logic behind keeping children rear facing longer is based on a 2007 study that seem to suggest that children in a front facing car seat is 75% more likely to suffer fatal and severe injuries. However, this statistic is misleading: the study analysed accidents from between 1988-2003. Of these accidents, less than 1% involved injury or death. Of this fraction of a percent, you find that indeed, the risk of death is 75% higher in front facing car seats: a 0.02% increase of overall risk.
The case for car seats for older children is also a more murky than what the numbers would suggest. In research done by Steven Levitt, author of Superfreakonomics, he found that the studies in favour of extended car seat use only compare car seats to no restraints at all. When he ran simulations with toddler crash test dummies, comparing seat belt restraints to car seats, and compared the numbers between the different restraints there was no apparent difference in the two most serious injury categories. When he compared car seats vs seat belts vs unrestrained children in an accident, the statistics again showed a decrease in death when some sort of restraint was used, but not much of a difference when comparing belts vs car seats.
Using restraints in a car is important. Twenty percent of children involved in serious crashes are not restrained that all, a statistic that needs to change. However, forcing children approaching thirteen years old to remain in a booster seat, when statistics show only a miniscule increase in real safety, will not protect these children. All it does is create more snake oil parents must buy in the name of safety.