If we really care about children, let's not drive them around so muchby Charles Marohn
Baxter, Minn. — As a society, we are zealous when it comes to the safety of children. And rightfully so. Yet we find it perfectly acceptable to routinely include them in the most dangerous activity of American life: riding in a car.
After perinatal conditions, which are problems that occur near or in the immediate months after childbirth, auto accidents are the leading cause of death among children under age 19. For accidental causes of death, there is no close second. It is time that child advocates start promoting mixed-use, walkable communities as an alternative to better armor and thicker padding.
Imagine two 9/11 attacks each year that killed just kids, and you would still not have the number of child fatalities that America suffers each year from auto accidents.
One of the original promises of the suburban development pattern -- the uniquely American living arrangement that separates commercial and residential development and connects them by a hierarchy of roads -- was that it would provide a safe environment to raise kids. The country is having a conversation about how much this development pattern has contributed to increasing rates of childhood obesity, diabetes, depression, attention deficit disorder and other ailments. But one thing is certain: The way we are organized forces today's children to ride in the car far more often than any prior generation.
If we are serious about wanting what is best for kids, shouldn't we be doing everything we can to reduce the number of auto trips they are required to take each day?
And when we do take trips, shouldn't our top priority be reducing the speeds on local streets? We have spent untold wealth the past two generations in an effort to increase speeds on local streets. In Minnesota, we even have a statutory minimum design speed of 30 miles per hour, the maximum of what car seats are even tested for. Why do we not talk about this?
The best thing we can do for the safety of our children is to get them out of the car. The most effective way to do that is to allow the construction of mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods that reduce the demand for auto trips by providing alternatives.
So who in the child-advocacy realm is talking about this? Nobody. Safe Kids USA has all kinds of information on using your child seat, but nothing on the value of reducing trips. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has information on child seats, but that's it. It's the same with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Transportation Safety Board. It is all about armor and padding, nothing at all about reducing trips.
Should child seats really absolve our collective conscience?
Charles Marohn is a professional engineer and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is president of Strong Towns, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that describes its mission as "to support a model for growth that allows America's towns to become financially strong and resilient." He is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.