Monday, December 28, 2009

Toddler Car Seats Debunked

Shocking result reported in the book SuperFreakonomics. Perfectly installed and fitted car seats for 3 and 6 year olds are no more effective in a crash in protecting children than the poorly fitting built-in lap belt. Hear the authors talk about it in segment 7 of this talk.

Other interesting comments from that segment, though I don't know if all of these are actually backed up by the research or if they are merely conclusions based on the new intuition informed by the study:
  • The passenger seat is the least safe seat in the car.
  • A child would fare better than an adult in the front seat because they are smaller and less likely to get squashed by something.
  • The safest place for an infant would be on the floor of the backseat.
  • Crash testing companies had never done comparative testing of regular seat belts and child seats. The authors were turned down several times. The engineer who finally did the test was certain they were going to destroy his crash test dummy and made them promise to replace it if it got destroyed in the tests using only a plain seat belt.
  • Using a seat belt of any sort makes an enormous difference in the survivability of a crash.
  • Babe-in-arms in the front seat is the worst possible place for an infant.
  • The authors note that other people disagree with their conclusions.
Legislators, will you take action to further investigate this and remedy the situation if further study bears this out?

I feel more oppressed by child safety seat regulation than any other government regulation I can think of because it affects me nearly every day as a father of four children under the age of 7. We switched to a minivan from a sedan when our third child was born because fitting three car seats in the back seat was problematic. (It was hard to close the back doors.)

Now that we have a minivan, I'm still concerned about adding the fifth child to this car because I'm not sure how easy it will be to access the built in seat belt when three booster seats or child seats are squeezed onto that back bench. Perversely, the cumbersome nature of child safety seats makes me less inclined to buckle my kids for trips of three blocks or less. I'm sure that isn't the safety result the legislators were hoping for.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Thoughts on Humanitarian Aid

Rick Steves, the famous travel guide author, gave a speech to the Commonwealth Club. At the very end of his recorded speech, he riffed for a minute about the differences in European and American approaches to helping the poor and about the obligation that we have to reach out.

You see beautiful kids in your travels that are every bit as precious as our kids. And when I look at these girls on a garbage dump in El Salvador, I see every bit as much deserving beauty there as my own daughter.

I know my daughter's got $5000 for straight teeth and money left over for whitener. And I looked around her class and apparently every girl has $5000 for straight teeth and money left over for whitener. That's not a bad thing. I don't apologize for that. We have a winning society. I work hard; my daughter gets straight teeth.

But that doesn't negate the fact that in this village, the moms are not home because they're out walking for water. And for the cost of two sets of braces, we could drill a well in that thirsty community to parents could stay home and take care of their kids. That's not a guilt trip. That's an opportunity.

I share Rick's desire to improve the world. I also recently heard a bit of wisdom from Sharon Eubank on this topic in a recent lecture at the BYU Kennedy Center. Sharon shared some of her experiences in dealing with international humanitarian aid. Her talk was explicitly about the vital importance of keeping LDS humanitarian aid and LDS proselyting strictly separate to ensure our continued ability to do humanitarian work. I want to highlight a different point from her talk, however.

Sharon is involved in the wheelchair distribution effort for the LDS Humanitarian Services division. For a while, they would find the cheapest wheelchairs to distribute to poor people around the world. This gave them the largest number of wheelchairs for their limited humanitarian dollars. However, they discovered that when the wheelchairs inevitably broke down, there were no local resources to repair or replace the chairs and the recipients were eventually just as bad off as they'd been before. Lesson: Pay more to purchase chairs locally and strengthen the local market to ensure that the chairs and suppliers will have longevity.

Sharon has seen humanitarian projects with big plaques on the wall (see her talk about that about 34 minutes into the video) that stroke the ego of the donor who made it possible. But something perverse happens. The community doesn't feel ownership of the well that was dug or the clinic that was built. Eventually, it decays, along with the sign, and the donor's name emblazoned on the plaque becomes a symbol of neglect and abandonment rather than a symbol of hope and empowerment. Lesson: emphasize community ownership and maintenance. The local people must learn to build and maintain the project and have the resources to carry it forward.