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Study: Car seat laws have an adverse, unintended effect on birth rates

According to liberals, the “rights” enjoyed by Americans include “free” access to insurance-provided birth control, condoms handed out in schools and abortion almost to the moment of birth.

But if they wanted American women to have fewer children, they should have pushed for greater distribution of one of the ultimate symbols of bourgeois parenthood: the car seat.

According to a relatively recent study that is now getting some oxygen in the media, car seats are a form of contraception.

The study, published in July by economists Jordan Dickerson of MIT and David Solomon of Boston College, maintains that mandatory car seat laws have actually meant 145,000 fewer U.S. births between 1980 and 2017. And they continue to suppress another 8,000 births a year. 

The researchers note that beginning in 1977, “U.S. states have passed laws steadily raising the age for which a child must ride in a car safety seat.” Accordingly, the median age at which children can be switched to seat belts is now eight.

One effect of these laws, however, was to disrupt a rebound in birth rates that had started dropping at mid-century, they argue after reviewing census data. 

“We document a large and perverse effect whereby child car seat mandates have the unintended consequence of large reductions in birth rates,” Dickerson and Solomon wrote. 


“These laws can significantly raise the cost of having children for women who already have two young children, and are considering a third,” the study says.

“While the particular type of mandated restraining device varies, many cars cannot easily accommodate three child seats in the back row of seats, as would be needed if both front seats are occupied by adults. This especially increases the cost of a third child for many families, by necessitating the purchase of a larger car. The most practical options, like minivans, have additional problems of being expensive and unfashionable.”

This effect “is concentrated in households with access to a car, and is larger when a male is present (when both front seats are likely to be occupied).” And it serves to cause couples to pause childbirth until their existing children age out of car seats, but also presents a “permanent effect, whereby the additional cost dissuades some women from ever having a third child or more.”

“Somewhat surprisingly, the effects are larger among households with higher income levels,” Dickerson and Solomon note. 

The study argues that 60 percent of the effect of these laws has occurred since 2008, and 90 percent since 2000. Looked at differently, the fertility rate stood at 2.12 children per woman as recently as 2007; as of 2018, it had fallen to a record low 1.73.   

But things could have been worse.

“If current laws had applied over the whole sample,” the researchers argue, “we estimate there would have been a further 350,000 fewer births.”

Yet the authors maintain the laws have almost no effect.

“Using Federal data on fatal car crashes dating back to 1975, we estimate the effect of car seat laws on the number of child fatalities in car crashes,” they wrote. The outcome is that there are “no significant effects of the use of car seats on death or serious injury rates for children over age 2, conditional on getting in a crash.”

But that has not dented their popularity with the policy-making set.  

“Enthusiasm for these laws has not been curbed by studies showing that child car seats are generally no more effective than seat belts in preventing death or serious injury for children above age two,” the study says. “Part of this may be due to the perception that such mandates are virtually costless, beyond that of the car seats themselves (though for many families, even these may be burdensome).”  

A question left unanswered is why such policies have been adopted almost universally across states and grown steadily more stringent, even without Federal mandates. The answer that seems most compelling, but perhaps surprising under public choice economics, is that regulators are simply unaware of the magnitude (or maybe even the existence) of costs being imposed on family formation” Dickerson and Solomon conclude. 

“At a minimum, the relative lack of public discussion of this tradeoff suggests that it may not be foremost in the minds of policymakers. It is nonetheless difficult to imagine the compelling social interest in existing policy arrangements.”

PHOTO: Andrew Chin/Getty Images

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