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.

heavy trafficThat’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.

Image: istock.