In February, ProPublica published an alarming story about a certain child booster seat that, it says, is not adequately protecting kids in certain crash situations. Naturally, I paid attention as my youngest still uses a booster and I often carry other young children in my car (I always keep an extra booster in the trunk).
I nervously read the article and watched the attached video, which showed a child-sized dummy being violently shifted sideways – arms and legs akimbo – during a side-impact collision. This is the sort of article and visual that makes parents understandably nervous. It made me – the queen of “calm down” – nervous! So, I looked into it a bit further.
A good resource on car and booster seat safety is Dr. Alisa Baer, otherwise known as The Car Seat Lady. Dr. Baer comes from what the New Yorker once called “a safety-obsessed family.” Her grandfather helped educate the public about fire prevention and her mother began helping families properly install car seats in the 1980s (in the driveway of her own home). Dr. Baer carries on her mother’s work but in a much more modern way — by writing about this issue on her popular blog.
It’s there that I found reassurance and some good perspective on the ProPublica article. She writes:
While much of what ProPublica reported is factually correct, the article omits a large quantity of additional evidence that complicates and desensationalizes the coverage. The fact is, booster seats and side-impact crashes (and car seat safety more broadly) are extremely complex topics that shouldn’t be oversimplified toward alarming conclusions
Read Dr. Baer’s entire blog post here for more information and additional data.
What concerns me most about the ProPublica article is the chance that it will discourage booster and car seat usage altogether. If people read the article and conclude that booster seats don’t protect kids, they might become less likely to use these safety seats.
Consider this wildly irresponsible headline from The Cut:
This headline suggests that it’s the use of the booster seat itself that could cause an injury. Of course if you read the article in full, the conclusion is that it’s the side impact crash and resulting injuries that could be fatal—not the actual act of putting a kid in a car or booster seat. Of course, you wouldn’t know that by reading the headline, which sadly today is as far as most people get in an article.
These kinds of sensationalized and terrifying headlines are sure to get clicks, but those clicks will come at the tragic cost of having a chilling affect on car seat and booster seat usage.
Sabrina Rojas Weiss, a parenting blogger at SheKnows interviewed Dr. Alisa Baer for her story on the ProPublica article and shared similar concerns about how people would react to the suggestion that these safety seats don’t work:
Her main fear after seeing the report is that parents will assume boosters are useless and do away with them altogether.
“What ProPublica did not show was what that same dummy would have looked like without the booster,” Baer told SheKnows. “Had they done that test, they would have found that the child was at increased risk for abdominal organ and lower spinal cord injury as the lap belt would have likely slid up over the child’s hip bones and put all the force of the crash into the soft belly and the lower spinal cord — a pattern of injuries known as ‘seat belt syndrome’ which can leave kids paralyzed and with massive abdominal organ injuries.”
A study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that in real-life accidents (not crash tests), children ages 4 to 8 using belt-positioning boosters were 45 percent less likely to sustain injuries than those who used seatbelts alone. That percent went up for near-side impacts (68 percent) and far-side impacts (82 percent).
People need to remember that child car restraints—seat belts, boosters and car seats—are so important. According to the CDC’s latest data (2017), 675 children, 12 years old and younger, died in car accidents and 116,000 were injured that same year. Of those deaths, 35 percent were not restrained in any way. Yet, car restraint use for children has increased. According to SaferRides4Kids—a nonprofit dedicated to promoting car seat and booster seat use—in 1999, only 15 percent of children were restrained while riding in a vehicle. That climbed to 80 percent by 2008, and by 2013, 91 percent of kids were either belted or in a car seat. That increase has reduced fatal injuries by 71 percent for infants, 54 percent for toddlers, and 45 percent for children ages four though eight.
Let’s not walk back those positive numbers. Parents should have good information in order to make educated decisions about the products they buy but overly simplistic articles about car seat safety risk turning back the clock on progress.