- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Federal safety bureaucrats want kids tied up and enclosed “for as long as possible” when traveling by automobile. The new child car-seat guidelines handed down Monday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) expand applicability of nanny-state suggestions to cover adolescents up to age 12.

Although not binding, the NHTSA rules will be used to influence state lawmakers who impose booster and car-seat requirements on children up to 8 years old. In Nevada, penalties for noncompliance with seating dictates run as high as $500. That makes this big business, but not just for the ticket-writing industry. Manufacturers sold a whopping $371 million worth of child car seats in 2007.

It’s worth asking whether that money is well spent. NHTSA’s latest work is based in large part upon input from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which released a new study on Monday. The proposal for having 12-year-olds in booster seats was based on prior work that came with a caution from AAP: “It is important to note that this study is nearly 20 years old, and significant changes have been made to the vehicle fleet during this time.”

For children over the age of two, “The recommendation for forward-facing (child safety seats) has been based, in part, on an analysis by Kahane of laboratory sled tests, observational studies and police-reported crash data from the early 1980s,” the AAP report stated. The Kahane study was conducted in 1986 for NHTSA, completing the circle of reasoning.

The AAP report also noted that failure to properly secure a kiddy seat can actually increase the risk of injury to young occupants. This is apparently no easy task. In 2007, even the head of NHTSA, Nicole Nason, admitted - after taking a three-day training course on child-seat use - that she had been doing it wrong for years. One test documented nearly three out of four parents misused their seats in the same way.

Even when installed by NHTSA engineers, kiddy seats can fail. During routine crash testing of 2008 model-year vehicles, at least 31 child car seats created more simulated injuries for the crash-test dummies when they broke away from their mounting points. NHTSA never voluntarily disclosed this information; it was uncovered in a 2009 Chicago Tribune investigation.

These problems may help explain the findings of economist Steven D. Levitt, author of the book “Freakonomics,” who concluded there was no statistically significant benefit when children over the age of 2 used a kiddy car seat instead of regular lap and shoulder belts. Mr. Leavitt based his conclusion on a dispassionate examination of the latest available data from the federal database of highway accidents. In a talk before the TEDGlobal Conference in 2005, Mr. Leavitt explained that the issue reminded him of the placebos his father, an Air Force medical doctor, used to prescribe. Car seats make parents feel safe even if they provide little or no increase in actual protection.

Liberals feed upon such emotions when they lay down regulatory edicts. The left feels that forcing consumers to buy low-flow toilets will reduce water consumption, even when the multiple flushes required for operation ends up wasting more than it saves. They feel that bicycle helmets will make riders safer even though some studies suggest they encourage more dangerous behavior. Too often, regulations appear to be about increasing the control bureaucrats have over the lives of others. That’s why decisions about whether to use car seats should be left in the hands of parents, not the nanny state and federal bureaucracy.