In Regulation We Trust

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.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.