It’s Outrageous to Prosecute Moms Whose Children Die Due to Incorrectly Installed Car Seats

Toddler getting buckled into a car seat.
There’s ample evidence that correct use of child-safety seats really matters. Thinkstock

Last October, an off-duty police officer driving his Corvette 94 miles an hour crashed into a Nissan carrying four adults and four children in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. All eight occupants of the Nissan were taken to the hospital, and a 1-year-old girl later died of her injuries. The officer was arrested in February on charges related to the crash. But just a few weeks later, police made another arrest: the child’s mother, Brittany Stephens.

Not only did Stephens not cause the crash, she was not even driving the car hit by the Corvette. But she told police that she was the one who had buckled the child into her car seat. Police said that “lack of securing the seat to the vehicle and the loose straps” contributed to the child’s death and showed “gross negligence” by Stephens.

Prosecuting a parent for improper car-seat usage is unusual, but not unheard of. In 2009, prosecutors in Washington state charged a woman with vehicular homicide when her infant daughter was killed riding in a loosely installed car seat in the front passenger seat during a collision. (The case was eventually dropped.) Child-passenger safety laws have been widespread since the 1980s, though the reach and specificity of state laws vary widely. Every state requires safety seats for infants, for example, but just nine states specify that children younger than 2 must ride in rear-facing seats.

That’s just the law. Car-seat best practices are an ever-shifting landscape that reaches far beyond basics like snug straps. (For example, here’s a doozy: Children are not supposed to wear winter coats in their car seats.) The result is that these seats are now almost impossible to install to the satisfaction of experts. For a 2015 study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, researchers surveyed 291 families discharged from the hospital with a newborn, asking them to install the seat if they hadn’t done so already and then position the newborn in the seat. The result was that 95 percent of families made at least one error, and 91 percent made an error considered “serious.”

Car-seat installation and usage are confounding enough that an industry of consultants and “certified car safety technicians” has arisen to provide counsel. In the New York City area, you can hire a consultant to come to your home to provide a one-on-one installation lesson for $525. Online, women (yep, mostly women) share amateur demonstration videos, discuss the pros and cons of keeping toddlers rear facing past age 2, and agonize amongst themselves about whether to confront fellow parents when they see photos of children with loose straps or wrong-size seats. One large Facebook group of moms I belong to has its own designated car-seat expert who weighs in tirelessly on questions of installation, strap positioning, size and weight requirements, and so on. All of this takes time and mental energy that not every parent has to spare. Unsurprisingly, the 2015 study found that factors associated with ineffective seat installation included lower socio-economic status and lower educational attainment. For what it’s worth, working with a safety technician didn’t help much: Among the 15 percent of families who had gone to that trouble, 83 percent of them still made usage errors later on.

It would be comforting to declare that car-seat safety is a matter of regulatory bloat, and to hell with it all. But there’s ample evidence that correct use of child-safety seats really matters. The people who say, “In my day, seven of us rode in the trunk of the station wagon all the way to Colorado and we were fine!” are the ones who survived the trip. And knowing that it’s important does nothing to change the fact that even the most expensive seats can be agonizingly difficult to install. Installation is not a one-time event, especially for families in which kids are switching cars often because they rely on multiple caregivers.

Something has clearly gone wrong when a prosecutor goes after an individual parent like Brittany Stephens, who has already lost her child. Like parents who have forgotten their children in hot cars, she has already suffered the worst imaginable punishment for her error. But the bigger question is why the onus is on parents to perform a technical task that has proven essentially impossible to execute perfectly. Car-seat manufacturers have done an incredible job making their products safer and safer over the years. Now they need to work on making them easier to use.