car linesMy calendar tells me that my wife and I will welcome our first child into the world any day now. Yikes.

(This is good news for readers too: I’ll be doing less blogging this month.)

A couple of weeks ago, we toured our hospital’s birthing center where we learned that newborns aren’t allowed to leave without a car seat. That’s just commonsense. No argument from me.

And yet I found the car seat policy jarring. It suddenly registered: for my infant’s first foray into the outside world, he will be encased in a protective polymer shell so that it’s legal for us to travel with him at high speeds across the city in 2,000 pounds of metal.

Is it just me, or is there something weird about that?

I mean, it’s not the policy that’s the issue, but what the policy reveals about modern life. It illuminates the basic and largely correct assumption that the only way to leave the hospital is in a car. The policy is a reminder that cars so completely dominate our cities that they are literally with us from our the first hours of our lives. (And at the risk of sounding grotesque, there’s a fair chance that they will be with us in our final hours too. Car crashes are the leading cause of death under the age of 45.)

Maybe the reason I was startled is because my wife and I don’t define our lives around cars. Or at least we don’t think we do. Sure, we own a car, but we take it as a point of pride that it’s mostly a luxury rather than a necessity. Maybe we’re kidding ourselves.

Even here, in America’s sixth most walkable city, the car defines us. And even traveling between two urban neighborhoods—numbers 12 and 13 on the Walkscore ranking—we’ll be driving home from the hospital.

I suppose we might have avoided driving by arranging for a home birth. (One reason we decided not was that our small city house would mean too-tight quarters.) Or we might have found a birthing center in our neighborhood. (Though it’s unlikely it would be close enough for carless transport.) Regardless, our situation is hardly unusual. The vast majority of babies are born in hospitals. And that means car seats—and driving—from the beginning of life. 

Granted, cars are exceptionally convenient for certain kinds of trips. Taking a newborn home from the hospital is perhaps not the best time for bus transfers or urban hiking. So, again, it’s not the hospital’s car seat policy I object to, so much as what it suggests: that in modern life, responsible parenting starts with a car.

I certainly don’t believe that’s true. But I guess I’ll be finding out any day now.