x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Dad matters: Please be car seated

Finding a suitable car seat for a child is a challenge worthy of Nasa's attention.

When the Americans sent monkeys into space in the late 1950s, did they have any trouble strapping them in for their journey? A monkey would, I imagine, be a pretty tricky animal to secure for a space flight. In fact, it turns out all manner of creatures have been shot into orbit: dogs, cats, frogs, fish, crickets and worms. The harnesses for some of these animals must have been very intricate mechanisms.

Clearly, it was a pioneering era for safety devices in vehicles. In 1959, Volvo introduced Nils Bohlin's revolutionary three-point seat belt into its cars. The children's safety seat emerged in pretty much the form we know today a few years later. The overall design of these products has changed very little in 50 years. Trying to strap Astrid into her car seat one day, I had to remind myself that these technological innovations are a blessing. I have to force myself to remember what a boon car seats are, how many lives they save each year and how lucky we are to have them. Yet I cannot help but envy the Nasa engineers with their monkeys and their worms and perhaps even a handy dose of sedatives.

Astrid is a much more slippery beast. She is like some kind of superbug: it is as if she has evolved to be highly resistant to car seats. The trouble begins before we reach the car. If Astrid realises we are going on a car journey, her body goes limp and floppy. It is like carrying a plate of jelly. Perhaps sensing she is going to be shackled, probably for a long time, she tries to slip out of my arms. When I put her into her seat, she pushes her belly out, arches her back and keeps it rigid as I struggle to fasten her in. Every now and again she wriggles and kicks her legs.

When it seems as though I have almost succeeded in my arduous task, she starts to scream. Sometimes I trap my finger in the clasp, and then I start to shout and curse. Eventually I manage to secure her in her seat, but she is not bound there for long. A few minutes after setting off, I glance in the rear-view mirror and notice she has managed to contort herself to free her arms from the harness despite being tightly strapped in. Fortunately, this mayhem only happens about one in every 10 trips.

Steven Levitt, an American economist and co-author of Freakonomics, has brought his skills of data analysis to bear on the subject of car seats. In a talk on TED.com, he argues that for children older than two, there is no statistically proven benefit in using a car seat instead of a normal seatbelt. It is an interesting idea, and one that Levitt estimates could save around US$300 million (Dh1.1 billion) every year.

I want Levitt's statistical analysis to be right. I yearn for car seats to be exposed as complicated and unnecessary contraptions. Yet, I cannot see how it is the case. While we were in the UK, we bought another car seat. It is more of a booster seat than the one we use at home. Astrid is more placable in the new seat. She struggles less. She falls asleep in it more often. The whole process is easier, but even with the straps pulled snug and tight, she manages to wriggle free. With an adult seatbelt she would no doubt be free in seconds.

Later in his talk, Levitt argues for the need for a new design - something in between a car seat and a seat belt. Perhaps the Nasa engineers who designed the harness for a worm would have something useful to contribute.