April 14, 2006 — -- 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.
Once a child is 2 years old, the "Freakonomics" authors say, car seats don't make any difference. Just a regular seat belt, even though it doesn't fit as well, is just as good.
"Well, we certainly don't believe that's true. Child safety seats are far more effective. What the authors have failed to do is they have failed to look at injury data. They looked only at fatality data," Mays says.
Levitt says he looked at the injury data. He went the hospital records, and found little difference.
"Well, that's an unpublished study. We haven't seen that study, so we really can't comment on it," Mays says.
The new study will be published next month. It concludes that after the age of 2, child seats are no better at protecting your kids than seat belts.
"I don't think anything I've ever done has upset people as much as my claims that car seats don't work well. I think there is a fundamental, practically a religious belief in the benefits of car seats among parents," Levitt says.
So what's a parent to do about all this? Well, you still have to obey the law and strap your kids in. Take advantage of the 24,000 trained car seat inspectors who will teach you to do it right.
Click here for more information on installing and using car seats safely.