Angry New Yorker

Sunday, March 27, 2005
The Nanny State Marches On - Booster Seats for All!!

Most of us here at Angry New Yorker are of sufficient age that we can remember when the first seat belt laws came into effect. Even back then we recognized these laws as the first push at the top of the slippery slope toward a final nanny state where insurance companies ruled everything by proscribing what we can do. [Ed. note - while we're at it, can we please stop naming laws after people? E.g., Kendra's Law, Megan's Law, Sarbanes-Oxley, etc. It's both tiresome, unnecessary, and frankly distressing, as it's much easier to pass a law billed as "cute little young tragically dead child's law" than the same law under it's descriptive title. Back to our topic already in progress....]
It isn't that wearing seat belts or helmets aren't a good idea -- we know enough physics to understand it's the change in momentum impulse when you decelerate that kills you unless a seat belt or air bag operates to stretch out that delta t by a few life-saving milliseconds to lower the peak applied forces. So it isn't that we don't know the science. But when the state gets into the business of mandating all things good and fine for your health, then there is truly no natural stopping point; or if there is we haven't seen it yet.

Flash forward to 2005 where we're well on the way to the creation of the dreaded great nanny state. For as we last noted back in Nov. 2004, here, after our sterling NYS legislature passed a law requiring kids under 14 to wear a helmet when skateboarding, the present trend means one day in the future it's not farfetched that our hand-wringing legislature would pass "a law requiring everyone just walking down the street to wear a helmet . . . ." Laugh if you will... we do in fact hope the joke is not on us, however.

In service of the great and holy cause of "protecting our children" the New York State legislature -- that self-same legislative body which is currently seeking to add billions of expenditures to Gov. Pataki's already bloated $105+ billion dollar budget, that hasn't passed a budget on time in 21 years, that can't tame out-of-control Medicare spending bankrupting counties and throttling our competitiveness, that can't accomplish anything of meaningful progress in Albany apparently, except adding more zeroes to the payouts given to unions -- still has found time to care about our children in passing S.217 to amend "subdivision 5 of section 1229-c of the vehicle and traffic law" [NY VTL 1229-C - Operation of vehicles with safety seats and safety belts] to mandate that children over four and up to seven years of age, unless over 4'9" in height or over 80 pounds, must be in a specialy designed "booster" seat [while children less than four are still required to be in child safety seats].

I don't know about most kids at age 7, but I know it would have been very difficult to keep me in a "booster seat" at seven. At that age I'd frequently sit on phone books, while seat belted in the front seat, and read maps as our navigator on family trips -- but today I couldn't even do thatin states that prevent kids from sitting in the front.

As justification for this law the NYS sponsors note:
Information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Adminstration reports that in 2002, one-half of children ages 14 years and younger fatally injured in traffic accidents were completely unrestrained. In addition to this problem, children also face greater risk of serious injury when restrained in safety belts designed for larger persons rather than appropriate child safety seats. To address these concerns, New York has enacted Chapter 509 of the Laws of 2004 which will require, starting March 27, 2005, that children age four or older, but less than seven years of age, be placed in an appropriate child restraint system (booster seat). Under this new law any such child who is 4' 9" in height may instead be secured with the vehicle's safety belt, recognizing that their size makes use of the regular safety belt appropriate.

How severe is this "greater risk of serious injury"? The NHTSA notes in a Traffic Tech memo, Number 253, Aug. 2001, available here, that "the occupant fatality rate for children between the ages of 5 and 9 has declined 10.6 percent in the last twenty years" and in 1999 "272 . . . fatally injured children were unrestrained . . . ."
Increasing Booster Seat Use for 4- to 8-Year-Old Children - October 2002 - Cover
So, would using a booster seat mean those 272 deaths could have been prevented? No. And let's remember that in 2002, the NHTSA states that 43,005 people were killed in car accidents in 2002. meaning that any way you slice it, child deaths from car accidents are a very small slice of total car fatalities. Further, the NHTSA's 2002 report "A National Strategy: Increasing Booster Seat Use for
4-to8-Year-Old Children," October 2002, available here, recognizes in its Executive Summary, that:

Under Section 14(i) of the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability, and Documentation (TREAD) Act, the Secretary of Transportation is required to, "…develop [a] 5 year strategic plan to reduce deaths and injuries caused by failure to use the appropriate booster seat in the 4 to 8 year old age group by 25 percent." While this is a highly desirable goal, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) research shows that a 25 percent reduction in deaths and injuries would not be attainable through the implementation of a program designed solely to increase proper use of belt-positioning booster seats. This view is borne out by the following data:

  • Virtually 100 percent restraint use by booster seat age children would be necessary to achieve a 25 percent reduction in total fatalities for this age group; and,
  • Only about 21 percent of 4- to 8-year-old children are reported as unrestrained in non-fatal crashes. Therefore, the number of unrestrained children is insufficient to produce a 25 percent reduction in the number of injured children, even if all were restrained.

The Agency's research also shows that the lack of any restraint use in a motor vehicle is the greatest risk to 4- to 8-year-old passengers. In 2000, almost half of the 4- to 8-year-old passengers killed in crashes were reported as totally unrestrained. In addition to the high number of fatalities, thousands of children were seriously injured in crashes because they were unrestrained.

Look, seat belts are a good idea for everyone; and smaller kids should be in child safety seats; but what kills the overwhelming majority of adults and kids alike in accidents is not having any restraint system. And the final question is how far does the state step into to mandate certain practices and "safety" equipment for either children or adults?

I wear my seltbelt everyday. But I don't do it because there's a law requiring me to do it. I snap in because the laws of physics will kill you in a crash in 1/10 of a second. Maybe if more people understood the fundamental Newtonian formula of F=MA, or more relevant to a car accident, the formula's reformulation as:
Force * (change in time) = Mass & (change in velocity)
In layman's terms, in an accident your change in velocity is extreme (from x mph to zero) in a very small amount of time. Your mass stays constant during this period, so what has to be huge to balance the equation is the force applied to stop your body in the extremely short time where you impact the steering wheel or dashboard. Add a nylon seat belt to the equation and the belt's stretching force increases the length in time by two orders of magnitude of more, which translates into much lower force applied over that time to bring your body to rest. See? Physics is not only fun, it can save your life.

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