I’ve spilled a lot of ink in this series about all the dangers that lurk in our food, air, water, and consumer products—mostly in the form of toxics and pollution—that have the potential to hurt pregnant women and seriously injure the brains and other organs of growing children. But as my Sightline colleague Eric de Place pointed out when he forwarded me Dan Bertolet’s Publicola post this morning, “obsessing about organic baby food, phthalate-free crib mattresses, and BPA-free bottles misses the biggest danger of them all: cars.”
Eric makes a good point. Public transit, land-use planning, our family car—none of these automatically come to mind when we think of our child’s health. But Bertolet reminds us that in the US, car accidents are the leading cause of death among children.
That’s right; car accidents are the cause of around 21 percent of deaths for kids between 5 and 9 years old, and car accidents account for 40 percent of teens’ deaths. (As a matter of fact, car accidents are the leading cause of death for all Americans under 35). It’s enough to make any parent freak. But, as Bertolet points out, we simply don’t freak. We don’t drive around thinking of our cars as kid killers. The fact is that the car remains a big, benevolent, even friendly, part of our lives—and no wonder, most of us rely on them to get around.
And sure, there are ways to reduce the likelihood of an accident. But, most of what you read about are precautions like properly installing and using seat belts and car seats. Then there’s all the advice about safe driving and being a cautious pedestrian—don’t talk on your cell phone, leave room between your car and the one in front of you, etc, etc. Yes, yes, yes…but where’s the stuff about simply driving less? As Ken Archer (via Matthew Yglesias) noted, critiquing the CDC’s suggestions for “how to improve public health by reducing traffic fatalities,” “this seems to miss the fact that driving in a car itself is a major risk factor.”
Exactly. The point is that we should be making the link between less driving and fewer deaths more often and more strongly. (We’ve brought this up on a regular basis at Sightline). Archer calls traffic reduction an “urgent public health priority.” Bertolet points to a study from New York City that makes the case perfectly:
But check this out this amazing stat: A recent study found that “children die in traffic accidents in New York City at less than one third the national rate, due to New Yorkers’ high reliance on public transportation.” Put another way, the average child in the US is more than three times as likely to die in an auto accident than is a child living in New York City. Because people drive less in New York. Wow.
Wow is right. I’m not saying that parents should let down their guard about toxics. Not at all. I’m not saying that everybody should sell the family car. (I’m not about to.) But, the question arises: Are investments in public transit and smart growth among the most effective ways to protect our own families and the largest numbers of children in our communities? It’s certainly one way to help keep our kids safer—and the side benefits are myriad, including less air and water pollution for our kids to ingest.
Eric de Place
Just for the record, I’m FOR organic baby food, phthalate-free crib mattresses, BPA-free bottles, and all the rest of it. I just worry that lots of parents, myself included, tend to overlook what is far and away the biggest threat to our children’s well-being.
Good post. It makes sense to s stop obsessing so much over getting the right kind of car seat and start obsessing more about how to use cars less. When my husband and I attended a car-seat safety class before our now-9-month-old was born, I asked about the safety of riding with an infant on a bus, where you can’t use a car seat. The instructor noted that it’s safer for a baby to ride unrestrained in a bus, than in the safest car seat possible in a car. I think this would surprise a lot of people. (And I’m curious to see the research on this.)
There one other benefit equality. This is important as many people like myself with one or more disabilities can’t drive. So the fewer cars the fewer social barriers based on if you drive a car and if you drive the “right” car.Also a a legally blind adult I have never been able to drive. I live in a wannabe city called Palmdale and grew up in a near by wannabe city called Lancaster both in southern California. This can be quite a challenge both technically and more importantly socially. But is doable. I hope that everyone will eventually go car-free.
Matt the Engineer
[Elisa] I don’t have exactly the numbers you want but in 2008 there were only 15 school bus passengers killed in the entire US. I don’t know how that compares to city bus passengers that are children, or the deaths per billion miles this represents, but there are a whole lot of school buses running twice a day, every day all over this country.
less kids would mean less child traffic deaths AND less downstream carbon footprint
Note that the British Medical Journal has banned the use of the term “car accident” in favor of terms such as “crash” or “collision”. This was done in recognition of the fact that such events are both preventable and predictable. See article: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1120417/
I absolutely encourage the language change from “accident” to “collision” or “crash” because that is a much more accurate way to describe most events.As we demonstrate in performance driver schools, there are skills you can acquire and actions always possible to avoid collisions or mitigate their effects. These schools are run by car clubs like Audi, BMW and Porsche, and professional organizations like Swerve and ProFormance.The underlying details of that New York statistic are complex, but it is a compelling example of “appropriate use” yielding multiple significant benefits. Where sufficient population density exists, it makes sense for our society to have appropriate transportation choices, and these use patterns change how people work and play.
Statistics on child pedestrian deaths should also have been included, since the headline refers to ‘traffic deaths.’Since the lethal danger of cars is well established, why not requiring all cars to sport a warning label, such as: “Danger to self and others increases with distance and speed driven.”Chris, Ottawa, Canada
I love the idea of warning labels on cars.