Let’s start exactly where Anthony Green of Safe Kids USA would have us start:
Dylan Bjorkman was days short of three years old when he let himself into his family’s unlocked car during his sister’s birthday party on an 86-degree day in West Virginia and died of heatstroke. Tragedies like this one explain why Safe Kids Worldwide, a 25-year-old organization, advises parents to keep their cars locked in the driveway, just as we urge parents to never leave a child alone in a car.
Keeping your car locked seems to make sense for any number of reasons, including theft. But how do we leap from “don’t forget to lock” to “never leave a child alone in a car”? Especially when we all know that we spent at least a smidgen of our own childhoods waiting in the car while mom ran into pick up the prescription, or dad paid for the gas?
The leap is made by the heart. Mine sinks, too, as it imagines the boy’s death and the parents’ grief. That heaviness is so unbearable, the struggling heart makes a leap of faith not to God’s great, unknowable plan, but to a more modern belief: The belief that if we just pass enough laws, we can prevent anything bad from ever happening again.
Regulation is the new religion.
Not that some regulations don’t make a lot of sense. They do. In fact, back in the 1960s, when Ralph Nader was pointing out that some cars roll over too easily, even as scientists were showing us that smoking can cause cancer, it made sense to reassess the products and procedures all around us. As a nation we went on the hunt for hidden dangers, found them all around, and demanded change. Afterward, cars became safer and cigarettes carried warnings, for which I am grateful.
But in the half century or so since then, we have cast an increasingly skeptical eye at increasingly safe things. As Joel Best points out in his amazing essay, the safer our society becomes, the more we obsess about small or even miniscule dangers.
And so now if you look at the list of “unsafe” toys that product liability lawyer James A. Swartz publishes on his website each year, you’ll find items like the Dark Knight Batman Action figure, whose bat-ears ostensibly pose a danger because “[t]oddlers may fall on these inflexible protrusions, with the potential for penetrating and blunt-force injuries.”
Holy frivolous lawsuit, Batman! I suppose that if a child were to leap out of a plane and land directly on top of this action figure—and if the action figure was standing bolt upright at the time, out on the lawn—this could indeed cause a “blunt force injury.” But it seems a bit delusional, even hallucinatory, to worry about a tragic toddler/plastic ear impaling. And to go so far as to say this Batman figure is a toy all decent parents should W.A.T.C.H. out for (Swartz’s website is called “World Against Toys Causing Harm” or W.A.T.C.H.) well, we’ve come a long way from warning folks about exploding Pintos.
But what of the other regulations Swartz and Green stand up for, including Green pressing for more laws prohibiting parents from letting their kids wait in the car for even a minute? He cites 31 children dying in cars last year (the majority of whom were forgotten there, not simply waiting out a short errand). That’s heartbreaking. But a debate rule of thumb holds that you want to scare someone, use numbers. If you want to put things in perspective, use percentages.
So, if there are 40,000,000 children under age 10 in America (and there are), and if they take an average of, let’s say, 10 car rides a week, we are talking about 20,800,000,000—that’s more than 20 trillion—kid car rides a year. And 1 in every 670,967,742 of those errands could prove fatal—that’s 0.000000149% of them. Should we really be regulating parental choice based on percentages like these?
If you talk about a specific child who died this way, most people will instantly say yes. They will be making that leap of the heart from sorrow to salvation-by-regulation. They may even name the new law after the child, as a form of consecration.
But if you tell a mom that she should be arrested for letting her 7-year-old read Mad while she runs in for milk because he could easily have died, she might ask you to mind your own business. And rightly so.
Laws exist to make society reasonably safe. They cannot make us completely safe without making us completely unreasonable.
I trust my kids around Batman’s ears. I trust them to wait in the car while I run an errand. I don’t trust anyone telling me those activities are so dangerous that there oughta be a law.