Child Safety vs. Higher Cost of Travel HARD CHOICES

Article excerpt

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. …

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