True story: When my son was born, we had a few days in the hospital to recover, rejoice, and regroup before we set out into the world, and our new lives as parents. On our last morning as hospital residents, we were visited by the attending physician offering a general check up for the boy and some last minute parental advice. He went over some rudimentary details and advice, and he then gave us one of those looks of grave importance, lowered his voice and became, almost alarmingly, stern and serious in tone. He informed us that, until recently, our greatest risk of death was a fatal car accident.
Since heading into our mid-30s we had graduated into the distinguished realm of heart disease as our demise du jour. However, since having a child, we were now thrust back into the remedial casualty of the ever popular car wreck, due to the fact that we would now been outrageously sleep deprived and continuously distracted by all the infantile goings on in the back seat. This was all moments before we were set to strap our 3-day-old child into a “baby bucket” for the white-knuckle drive home in the rain. Thanks doc!
This unsettling memory resurfaced when I came upon a recent World Health Organization (WHO) report revealing that traffic accidents are the current leading cause of death among children worldwide. According to the WHO report, 830,000 children under the age of 18 die every year throughout the world (as illustrated in the report, it is like wiping out the entire child population of Chicago each year), and millions more suffer serious, if not disabling, injuries that could have been avoided, if not prevented. Considering the cautionary advice of the doctor, and all the flagrant, if not entirely irresponsible, driving behavior I have witnessed, this information was not entirely surprising.
I have traveled throughout the world, and driven on many roads and seen instances of automotive behavior that reinforce this statistic. From the family of four (including an infant) happily riding a single moped through the streets of Mumbai, India, to the hulking SUV barreling down the New Jersey Turnpike with each passenger (front and backseat) attuned to their own personal video monitor, including the driver, it is a small wonder that the statistic does not run significantly higher. All things considered, the fact that the WHO, an organization that routinely warns at risk populations of plagues, malnutrition, and disease, is training their focus squarely at the automobile is a wake-up call.
I know that, among my friends and in my household, talk of personal safety for our children tends to cover a range of subjects, from lead paint in toys to virulent diseases. For most of us, once we have a good set of tires and a reputable car seat, the talk and thought of automotive safety becomes secondary, if not tertiary. It could be argued, we are, out of necessity, suspending rational thought each time we strap our children into the car and join the perilous parade of distracted drivers. How many children die, or are injured from inorganic food or the liberal and flagrant use of phthalates in their soap each year? I am sure there is a number out there, but the likelihood is that it is nowhere near 830,000. This is not to say that we shouldn’t remain vigilant about some, if not all, of these issues, but it is safe to say we have become tragically overconfident and oblivious when it comes to driving.
While it may be the nature of the beast, as once someone becomes a seasoned driver they quickly perfect the ability to multitask (phone, music, personal hygiene, etc.) and space out behind the wheel. Still, when the stakes are this high, it is well worth bringing focus back to the task at hand (that would be driving!).
My advice: Do the necessary car repairs, obtain the necessary safety gear (quality car seat, air bags for the front seat, etc), and recontextualize the act of driving to be a state of presence, and not simply a means to an end. The example you present as a cautious and aware parent/driver will not only make an impression on your children in the back seat, but will likely keep them alive long enough for them follow your good example.
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.