Trying to Outlaw Fate

How I wish Anthony Green could have read my book, Free-Range Kids, in which I write, “I love safety. I believe in helmets, car seats and seat belts.”

I even love his idea of a “designated texter,” and wish I’d come up with it myself! Frankly, anyone against implementing basic safety measures would have to be a little strange.

Anyone against trying to legislate out every last bit of risk in the world, well, that’s another story.

The idea shared by Green and fellow essayist (and injury lawyer) James A. Swartz is that every accidental child death could and should have been prevented. Which means that every accidental death is not an accident at all, but someone or something’s fault, and we must make sure it never happens again. Even if that means outlawing something as generally safe and normal as letting a kid wait in the car while her mom runs in for pizza, or letting a baby sleep in the crib all his older cousins used.

This is how a trial lawyer thinks: Any client who comes to him with a child hurt in even the most unusual and unpredictable manner has a legitimate claim against a practice, a person, or a manufacturer. This leads to situations like the following.

About a month ago, a child in Alberta, Canada, somehow nearly strangled to death on his hall pass lanyard. Immediately afterward, all 2,000 schools in the province declared lanyard hall passes a danger and banned them. But what if the student had tripped over a shoelace and fallen down the stairs? Should we outlaw lace-up shoes? Or stairs? Or what if he’d choked on an apple slice? From now on, only applesauce allowed at lunch?

Emotionally, to hear the story of the lanyard boy—it’s wrenching. No one could deny it. I certainly don’t. But I think we CAN deny that hall passes are inherently dangerous. They have been used for decades by I’d guess hundreds of millions of children, and here we have one child who almost died.

In an article about the incident, a local police spokesman was quoted as saying, “If [we] had any information ahead of time, this obviously would have been prevented.” But…that’s the point: We CAN’T have information about every accident ahead of time. If I know I’m going to get hit by a car on my way to work this morning, by golly, I’ll take the day off. But we can never know when something unpredictable is about to happen. Hence the word “unpredictable.”

The sad fact is that some of us, including some children, will end up hurt by things that are actually very safe. We used to call this God’s will, or bad luck, or fate.

Now we just call a lawyer. Or a lawmaker.

Or both.

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.