- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 7, 2002

"Being safe" is not an absolute thing but rather a question of relative priorities. For example, it's clearly "safer" in terms of decreased exposure to risk to avoid driving at all. But most of us are willing to accept the greater statistical risks of driving in order to reap the very real and tangible benefits of getting behind the wheel mobility, convenience, the ability to get where we're going expeditiously, etc.

Similarly, it's a question of pros and cons when it comes to child safety seats and the supposedly "proper" means of transporting a young-un.

On the one hand, it is less safe for an infant or small child to ride up front in an air bag-equipped vehicle because of the risk the passenger side air bag poses to the child should there be an accident. More than 150 people, many of them children, have been killed (and many more injured) by air bag deployments. So the due authorities officials at the all-wise, all-knowing National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the same folks who pushed so hard for air bags in the first place, and who took way too long, incidentally, to acknowledge the very real danger air bags can pose told people it's "safer" to strap their kids in the back seats, away from the mean old air bags.

But according to NHTSA's own data, something like 31,000 accidents occur each year in this country as a direct result of distractions caused by passengers such as crying babies and small children in the back seat area. NHTSA spokesman Tim Hurd recently told Car and Driver's Csaba Csere that "At least 25 percent of crashes involve driver distraction of one form or another" but did not concede a correlation between that fact and the ubiquitous practice of placing a child in the rear seat instead of up front. As Mr. Csere put it, placing a child up front may increase the odds of an injury if there's an accident but the odds of an accident happening are greater if the child is riding in the back seat.

So it all comes down to a choice and a question of priorities: You can park your kid up front and risk death or injury from the air bag. Or you can do what NHTSA says is right, put your kid in back and increase your risk of having an accident when you take your eyes off the road to see what's making said kid screech for no apparent reason.

The government, of course, doesn't want to let you, dim bulb that you are, decide which of these alternatives poses the more substantial risk. NHTSA and its tentacular minions at the state and local level simply insist you put your child in the back seat regardless of the demonstrable risk such a distraction creates. It's your kid but they're making the choice. If NHTSA's we-know-best attitude strikes you as a bit overweaning, a touch on the presumptuous side, c'mon in and join the club.

Ironically, there may be a way out of this conundrum a means of reducing both injury risk as well as the risk of having an accident as a result of driver distraction. But NHTSA is not doing much to speed the solution to market. A Colorado-based company Xportation Safety Concepts Inc. has developed a shock-absorbing air bag compatible child-safety seat that not only meets but exceeds government standards and requirements for child restraints, and which has shown it protects infants from air bag-related injuries during accidents. The Airbag Safe Infant Seat (ASIS) has a shield built into the front of the seat that absorbs the force of the air bag, leaving the child unscathed and the driver less distracted. The ASIS child seat seems like a great idea, has so far passed several independent tests and would retail for about $100, according to the manufacturer. But before it can be sold to the public, it must meet the approval of the safety solons at NHTSA the very agency responsible for the mixed-bag air bag requirement that has caused so much trouble. (Remember, at least 150-odd people have been killed and thousands injured by air bags, irrespective of the many people who have been "saved" by them and that's leaving aside the distracted driver issue that NHTSA itself concedes is a root cause of some 30,000 accidents annually.)

The problem with NHTSA issuing all these rules from on high and making so many decisions on behalf of people, and perhaps against their own better judgment is the notion that NHTSA is somehow omniscient, and that everyone else is too dumb to weigh relative risks and benefits, or to make sensible choices for themselves.

Decisions about personal safety and how best to care for kids are properly matters for parents to decide not Big Momma in Washington. She doesn't have all the answers tucked away in the pockets of her apron and should quit pretending that she does.


Eric Peters is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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