Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner in the weekend’s installment of “Freakonomics” in the New York Times Magazine:
“Although motor-vehicle crashes are still the top killer among children from 2 to 14, fatality rates have fallen steadily in recent decades — a drop that coincides with the rise of [child safety] car-seat use. Perhaps the single most compelling statistic about car seats in the NHTSA manual was this one: ‘They are 54 percent effective in reducing deaths for children ages 1 to 4 in passenger cars.’
But 54 percent effective compared with what? The answer, it turns out, is this: Compared with a child’s riding completely unrestrained. There is another mode of restraint, meanwhile, that doesn’t cost $200 or require a four-day course to master: seat belts.
For children younger than roughly 24 months, seat belts plainly won’t do. For them, a car seat represents the best practical way to ride securely, and it is certainly an improvement over the days of riding shotgun on mom’s lap. But what about older children? Is it possible that seat belts might afford them the same protection as car seats?
The answer can be found in a trove of government data called the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), which compiles police reports on all fatal crashes in the U.S. since 1975. These data include every imaginable variable in a crash, including whether the occupants were restrained and how.
Even a quick look at the FARS data reveals a striking result . . .”