The Importance of Proportion

The Conversation
February 19, 2013

I wrote my initial contribution before those by James A. Swartz and Anthony Green were posted. Their essays confirm a central point that I was trying to make—that the primary impetus for child safety does not come from meddling officials, but rather from private advocates, like Swartz and Green, whose campaigns may call for more governmental action. Earlier campaigns of this sort deserve credit for all those social policies that dramatically cut the death toll among children. So far as I can tell, everyone involved in this conversation approves of improving the milk supply, promoting vaccinations and antibiotics, and so on—policies that probably prevented something like a hundred million Americans from dying in childhood over the last century.

However, I do feel that there is a question of proportion. Talking about the costs and benefits of policies requires facing this. Anthony Green writes, “It is not right to say that auto crashes … [are] a smaller problem. Car crashes have been and remain the number one cause of death [among young people].” The second sentence is quite correct, but the first one is false. In 1966, there were 50,894 traffic fatalities; in 2010, there were 32,788. The actual number of deaths fell, even though the U.S. population grew by 55 percent, the number of drivers more than doubled, and the number of miles driven tripled. The number of deaths per million miles driven dropped from 5.5 to 1.1. Traffic fatalities are a smaller problem. Why? Lots of reasons—safer cars, safer roads, better emergency medical care, and policies to rein in drivers who are teens, elderly, or intoxicated.

I suppose we could cut traffic fatalities to nearly zero—establishing a national 5 mph speed limit might do the trick. But we don’t do that because there are tradeoffs. We accept that being able to travel at the speeds we find convenient will lead to some deaths. Obviously, we continue to try to reduce the death toll, but without destroying the principal benefits of automobility.

Which returns us to the matter of proportion. In general, advocates go after the biggest dangers first—smallpox, dangerous milk, and such. Inevitably, as those policies succeed, the targets become smaller, and the tradeoffs more apparent. While there were initial fears about the safety of smallpox vaccines, their effectiveness soon overwhelmed most opposition. To take a more recent and less obvious case, people with arthritis grumbled about child-resistant caps on aspirin bottles enough that an accommodation was reached (I don’t know if this is still true, but manufacturers used to be allowed to sell one size of bottle without a safety cap).

If we’re now at a point where smart people disagree about the need for the next safety measure, I consider that evidence that earlier campaigns have addressed most of the easy issues, that we have progressed enough that the costs and benefits are more closely matched. On the one hand, James Swartz questions whether it is “acceptable to lose just one precious child”; on the other, Lenore Skenazy argues that saving that last life may involve costs that outweigh the benefits. Such a debate is not between facts and “myths”—it concerns values.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Smothered by Safety by Lenore Skenazy

    Lenore Skenazy argues that when it comes to children, we have gone too far in the pursuit of safety at all costs. This isn’t just a cultural phenomenon, either; it has serious implications for public policy, in the form of consumer product regulations and family and even criminal law. She suggests that it’s time to start learning to relax about children’s safety. In particular, allowing kids to take controlled risks is one of the ways that we introduce them to the real world, which is not and should not be risk-free.

Response Essays

  • Child Safety: More than Tree Stumps and Toe Mold by Anthony Green

    Anthony Green argues that child safety is nothing to joke about. It is not an overreach to call the police if you see a child alone in a locked car; on the contrary, you should certainly do it. Real progress has been made in child safety in recent years, even as new threats emerge, including toppling television sets and poisoning among older children. The child protection community has done tremendous good, and safety enables fun rather than inhibiting it.

  • Child Safety: The First Priority by James A. Swartz

    James A. Swartz argues that the multibillion dollar corporations that make children’s products have a responsibility to deliver them without any safety hazards. Recalls and labeling are not enough, and a close examination of many such cases reveals a disturbing trend: Corporations are often indifferent to children’s safety. We ought not to excuse or make light of such behavior.

  • The Roots of Concern about Kids by Joel Best

    Joel Best identifies two changing factors in American culture that have contributed to overblown fears related to children. The first is the mass media, which excels at spreading alarming stories, whether true or fictionalized. The second is the declining birthrate, coupled with increased safety itself: There are fewer children per family, and losing one is not an experience we suffer so often nowadays. As a result, smaller problems appear more alarming.

The Conversation

Letters to the Editor