A parent’s instinct is to encase a child in a bubble that will protect them from dangers that lurk in the outside world, or perhaps just beneath a turtle-like shell. Rare are the opportunities to give children that literal level of security, although one presents itself, for babies and infants at least, in the form of rear-facing car seats.
Barbara DiGirolamo, an injury prevention specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital, likens them to turtle shells. Rear-facing seats protect not only from flying glass and debris in a crash, they support a child’s head, neck and spine, which otherwise might be injured if the child is turned around and facing forward.
DiGirolamo made the comparison at a recent hearing of the state Legislature’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee, which is considering a bill by Andover Sen. Barry Finegold to tighten state law on the use of child safety seats.
Massachusetts already requires children under age 8, or who are 4 foot, 9 inches tall or shorter, to ride in a car seat or booster seat. The law is silent on the matter of which direction those car seats face. The bill, S.1411, would change that, requiring children to be strapped into rear-facing seats if they are younger than age 2 or weigh less than 30 pounds. Beacon Hill should act quickly to adopt it.
Doing so would add Massachusetts to the list of a dozen or so states that require rear-facing car seats for babies and toddlers — even though doctors and safety experts uniformly encourage the practice. The age 2 threshold is consistent with past guidance of the American Academy of Pediatrics, though the organization has since changed its recommendation to say children should use rear-facing seats “as long as possible, until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by the seat.”
It did so only because of questions about studies supporting age 2 as a specific milestone in injury prevention -- not that there’s any doubt about the effectiveness of the practice. Truth be told, a rear-facing car seat is better for any child.
“Car seats are awesome at protecting children in a crash, and they are the reason deaths and injuries to children in motor vehicle crashes have decreased,” Dr. Benjamin Hoffman said in announcing about the academy’s updated policy. Hoffman is chairman of its Council on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention. “… If you have a choice, keeping your seat rear-facing as long as possible is the best way to keep them safe.”
As a matter of policy, of course, “as long as possible” is hard to enforce. Age 2 and 30 pounds are more straightforward -- and those benchmarks have the support of people including DiGirolamo.
“The law that is currently written is not strong enough to keep our kids safe,” she told the committee, according to the State House News Service. “Why is a rear-facing car seat so critical? Because it protects the whole head, neck and spine of a child, absorbing the majority of the crash forces the body would sustain.”
To be sure, laws such as these are as much about education as enforcement, giving police an opportunity to intervene on behalf of the safety of children. No parent who is well themselves wants to do anything to endanger their kids.
Some may find another layer of rules from the state onerous, even a fairly narrowly focused one such as this. But there’s little doubt about the positive impact of the seat belt law and, by extension, the car seat law.
Data prove their value. Throughout the country, 639 kids under age 13 riding in cars were killed in 2018, or fewer than two per day, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. That’s bad enough. Child fatalities in car crashes two decades ago were more than double. Changes since the 1980s and ‘70s — particularly in light of population growth at the same time — are even more dramatic.
Eleven states -- including Connecticut, Rhode Island and now New York, where the law changed this past November — have already taken the next step of requiring children younger than age 2 to ride in rear-facing seats, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Massachusetts should do so as well.
It may not be as good as strapping shells onto the backs of our children, but it will go a long way toward preventing serious injury and death.