BOSTON — On the roads or in the skies, few would disagree that infants are America's most precious cargo. Even parents who don't buckle up often insist that their children do. And for families with toddlers today, auto safety seats are standard equipment.
After nearly every accident involving a child, questions arise about safety requirements - as federal hearings this week into air bags show. The hearings are part of an unusual, albeit disparate, push now under way to retool the nation's child safety laws covering automobiles, bicycles, and commercial airlines.
"Adults are required to wear seat belts, luggage must be stowed, and even coffee pots must be restrained during take-off, landing, and turbulence," said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D) of Oregon, when he introduced a bill this month to require commercial aircraft to have safety seats for children under the age of 2. "Our infants should be afforded the same level of safety."
But enacting tougher standards is often hard. While no industry or government official wants to be perceived as uncaring, nearly two decades of debate over airplane child safety seats, for example, reflect the difficulty of mandating safety while keeping the cost of travel accessible to a wide audience.
Currently, children under 2 may be held during flights, eliminating the need for parents to purchase an extra seat (airlines call them unticketed lap children).
But momentum may finally be building for a change. The National Transportation Safety Board - a government watchdog agency - has long recommended that aircraft restraint systems for toddlers be mandatory. Vice President Al Gore's Commission on Airline Safety and Security recently seconded that call.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which is charged with regulating as well as promoting air travel, is currently reviewing the recommendation. But the FAA has declined to mandate the systems in the past because it says the benefits gained from child safety seats don't outweigh the cost to airlines and ultimately the passengers.
INDEED, travelers with children under the age of 2 would have to purchase another ticket if safety seats are required. That might force some people to forsake travel by air.
For example, Debbie and John Manchester, who have a 16-month-old son, say the increased cost would likely change their mode of travel. The Manchesters flew from their home in Madison, Wis., to Boston for Christmas. They did not have to purchase a seat for their son. "That would have cost us another $200," Mrs. Manchester says. "We probably would have taken our car if we would have had to buy another ticket."
The FAA says that is the very reason it has declined to mandate child safety seats.
The back-and-forth between the government agencies over the safety seats also shows the different and often adversarial roles the NTSB and FAA play.
"The NTSB has the luxury of making recommendations without considering as broad a range of issues as the FAA has to," says Clint Oster, a business professor at Indiana University, Bloomington.
The NTSB typically investigates crashes, determines the cause, and recommends steps for the FAA to take to improve airline safety. The FAA must then perform a cost-benefit analysis for the industry.
The NTSB first recommended that the FAA require child restraint systems in 1979, then again in 1990 and 1994. The latest recommendation was issued after a nine-month-old infant was killed in a 1994 plane crash near Charlotte, N.C. The mother, who survived the accident, was unable to hold onto the child during impact.
The FAA responded to the NTSB recommendations by commissioning a study to research the "efficacy of child restraint systems." The study found that between 1978 and 1994, nine children under 2 were killed in airline accidents, and that five of those deaths could have been prevented by the use of child safety seats.
Like similar studies of child safety seats in autos, this study found the aft-facing types worked the best.
But the study found the potential increase in family travel costs, which would include the purchase of an additional seat for the infant, would force many families (like the Manchesters) to choose an alternative method of travel - mainly auto.
Moreover, the study said that since accident and fatality rates are significantly higher for automobile travel, that this would result in even more deaths.
"Once you work out all the numbers, requiring child safety seats would kill more people than they would save," says Dr. Oster.
But the NTSB disagrees. It argues that the FAA's data are faulty - that airlines might, for example, offer reduced rates for that extra seat - particularly if a family travels on off-peak times.
As Congress takes up the bill mandating airline safety seats for children, similar cost-and-benefit discussions are under way in the debates over air bags and bicycle safety.
In the case of automobile air bags, the government has already mandated all new autos to be equipped with air bags. But the same government watchdog agency - the NTSB - is reassessing the technology.
Four days of hearings this week have included recommendations that manufacturers include switches so air bags can be deactivated by car owners and that parents should be educated to place child seats in the back seat facing aft. Last Friday, the government told automakers they may now install less powerful air bags in new vehicles.
Meanwhile, a growing number of cities and states are requiring bike riders under age 12 to wear helmets. Currently, 15 states and another 35 cities and counties elsewhere are mandating helmets for children.