How Is a DVD Player Like a Car Seat?

We all know car seats can protect children in car crashes, but an innovative economist says a DVD player and seat belt can also do a good job. Here's how:

The law in every state says you must put your children in car seats for their safety, and almost every parent obeys the law.

Paul and Kelly Snisky are very careful about it. They have four kids, and they always strap them into car seats or booster seats when they go for a drive.

"Freakonomics" authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner have no quarrel with that.

"No one would disagree that restraining your child is about the single best thing you can do for protecting their lives," Levitt says.

However, Levitt recently examined the data from the government's Fatality Analysis Reporting System and came to a surprising conclusion.

"There seemed to be very little evidence that car seats and booster seats are any better for 2-year-olds than putting your child in the back seat with a seat belt," he says.

Crash tests show that properly installed safety seats save lives, but how many parents are certain their kids' seats are properly installed? Many parents are bewildered by the different brands and models. There are car seats for infants, toddlers and bigger kids, and they're all installed differently.

Over the years, Paul and Kelly have bought 15 car seats for their kids, so they were getting pretty good at it. "20/20" watched Paul struggle to install a new car seat for his son, Luke. It took him 15 minutes to put in a new booster seat and a car seat into his family's vehicle for two of his kids. It turned out, however, that he'd done it wrong.

Don Mays has tested car seats and other products in his 15 years at Consumer Reports magazine. According to Mays, as many as 80 percent of the car seats out there are either used or installed incorrectly.

"20/20" and "Freakonomics" authors observed a mini clinic on car seat installation run by SafetyBeltSafe USA. Most of the cars that stopped were found to have child seats that were not installed correctly.

The car seat rule sounds just like a government program, the "Freakonomics" authors say. The seats are big, bulky, federally mandated, hard to install -- and expensive -- from $80 to almost $300. Regardless of the price, car seats don't offer more safety if they're too complicated to use correctly.

"Is it the fault of parents if, after 20 years, they still can't get the car seats in? Or is it the fault of the car seat manufacturers [or] the government for having a product so difficult to do right," Levitt asked.

David Campbell is the spokesman for the companies that make child seats. Even Campbell admits car seats can be "difficult to install in some vehicles."

And some of the installation manuals are so detailed, parents may not read them completely. "We'd like to believe that they will read that information because it's provided to explain to them how to properly use the restraint with their child, how to install it in their vehicle and get a secure installation," Campbell says.

These are the reasons Levitt argues that once kids are 2 years old, they are just as safe in a regular seat belt, if we just could find a way to get them to sit still enough in the car. For that, Levitt suggests maybe a DVD player could help.

"Rather than strapping on a car seat, maybe you just need a seat belt and a DVD player in the back seat. My kids sit very still when you turn on the DVD player," he says.

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