Why Doesn’t Someone Tell You to Drive Less?

When you become a new parent you are told many things. "By far the biggest killer of children is car crashes" isn't one of them. In St. Louis you're told there's an outbreak of Whooping Cough. You're told not to let too many people hold the baby given that it's flu season. You're told that purple feet are OK, but a purple face is not. You're told to not tie blue balloons to your front porch handrail, lest you attract child abductors. Why doesn't someone tell you to drive less with your child in the car?

We're told about threats to our children from outside the home, but not about those we inflict ourselves. We're not told to change anything about our driving other than to buy a certified car seat and read the instructions. It's incredibly important that a proper child seat is used. An online search for child car seats returns millions of results, most with a variation of the following: "Using a child safety seat is the best protection you can give your child when traveling by car." There are literally thousands of pages of advice on which car seat you should buy, how to install the seat, how to determine at what height the shoulder straps should be set.

In addition to the purple feet and Whooping Cough, why couldn't someone tell us to choose a walkable community? One where our children could walk or ride their bikes to school. Where we wouldn't have to pack up the car to spend a lazy hour at a coffee shop. One where there's a well-maintained playground that's not surrounded by a parking lot.

The big news this past week came from the National Transportation Safety Board forum where advocates promoted the idea that children should remain in rear-facing car seats much longer than currently required by law (1 year old and 20 lbs). In Sweden it's common for children to remain rear-facing until age 4. It's been reported that children are five times safer when facing backwards. So why isn't it the law here?

"Cultural change is slow," is one answer from the NPR story. It takes time for regulations to catch up to studies, an opinion offered to me at the hospital recently, is another. There is plenty we can and should be doing to keep our children safer, but we also live in an auto-centric environment. Sure, there are better and worse neighborhoods in St. Louis, but even in the most walkable we are practically required to drive. We need more livable options.

The NPR story highlights the issue well: "I think we've become immune to this," says Ben Hoffman, a professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. "I think it happens so frequently and with such regularity that we've lost focus on how important it is. And I think that we're so reliant on cars to get us from Point A to Point B that we've sort of accepted it as the price of doing business." On average five children die every day in car crashes in this country.

To emphasize the point, children in St. Louis are much more likely to die or be injured in a car crash than by illness or any other means. The overwhelming threat to the safety of our children is not a gun shot, not a mugging, not an accident in the home and not Whooping Cough.

I am currently looking for a pre-school for my oldest child in my part of the city. More for time than safety, we won't choose a school more than 15 minutes from our home near the Central West End. Doing so would mean an hour spent in the car each day, coming and going from the school twice. This makes finding a school more challenging than it otherwise would be. And that's just one factor.

I realize there's no money to be made from telling someone to drive less, but what would it take to have people better understand the one thing they could easily do less of that would make their children more safe?

{walkscore.com highlights relatively walkable St. Louis neighborhoods – shown in green}