Why Are We Not More Scared to Drive Our Kids Around?

The other night I was reading a novel—which I won’t give the title of, since I’m about to discuss a significant, albeit telegraphed early on, plot point—where one of the main characters, a girl about to graduate high school, is grieving her long-distance boyfriend who was killed in a school shooting. The next day I checked in with a blog I’ve been following on and off for years, and the blogger, prompted by the anniversary of the September 11th attacks, was talking about her fears for her children, a large portion of which revolved around them possibly getting randomly shot. Now, both the novel and the blog are set in the United States, and not in New York City, which means that both the teenage character and the real-life blogger spend part of their time driving. Which led me to wonder, not for the first time: why aren’t we more generally scared of putting our kids in cars?

I don’t mean to single the blogger out (which is why I’m not linking to her, either). I have all sorts of irrational worries about my kids, sometimes while blithely hauling them around in a large metal box going at high speeds near other large metal boxes going at high speeds. This morning I needed to take my older daughter to the doctor (she’ll be fine) and I was debating between taking her to her pediatrician or to an urgent-care clinic. Now, I love the pediatrics office I found for my girls and would recommend it to you in a heartbeat, but from my house it’s a solid twenty-minute trip, via the highway, before you factor in Atlanta rush-hour traffic. Now, I took multiple courses on transportation planning, and have friends who do transportation planning for a living, and regularly read planning and policy experts who hate cars and write at length about the many different ways cars can damage the people who drive them. And it still took me a couple minutes to realize my kid would be safer if we opted for the urgent-care clinic, just because she’d be spending less time in the car.

Nor is this a recent phenomenon, I promise you, as the daughter of a mother who worried about everything, who would have thought herself a bad mother if she didn’t worry about everything, and who had been hit multiple times (she herself hadn’t caused an accident since she was 15—I wish I could say the same), and yet still let my brother and me wiggle out of our seatbelts and lie down in the back seat, because that was how you got kids through long road trips in the 1980s.

And yet the statistics would suggest that we should be much more scared of driving than of anything else. According to the CDC, in 2017 there were a total of 31,786 reported deaths of Americans under age 15. (I’m using Table 6, “Number of Deaths from Selected Causes, by Age,” beginning on page 34. That the CDC splits data into ages 5-14 and 15-24 means we can focus on kids being driven around by their parents, rather than driving themselves, which changes the risk equation.) However, by far the biggest killer of children under age 14 was “Certain conditions originating in the perinatal period,” meaning things that can go wrong during gestation or after birth; the CDC attributed 11,000 deaths under age 1 to those causes. So let’s subtract those out, to get a better idea of post-birth threats.

Of the 20,786 deaths remaining, 1,399, or 6.7% of the total, were from motor vehicle accidents. Homicide—this is all homicides, not just with firearms—accounted for 937 deaths, or 4.5% of the total. Of those, homicide by firearm made up 260 deaths, or 1.3% of the total. More children under age 15 died from car crashes than from cancer (1,237 = 6.0% of the total) and more children died from pneumonia than from getting shot.

Now, you can say that 260 is 260 too many, and make your policy choices from there. That’s a separate issue. I’m not arguing that we overestimate the risk of mass shootings (although I think we do), my question is why, relative to our fear of mass shootings, we seem to underestimate the risk from car accidents, and refuse to change our behavior. I can say I try to keep my children safe, but you can plausibly argue that, living in the suburbs and frequently driving on highways, I’m a bad mother and a hypocrite.

I will confess to not having followed the latest research on driving and risk perception. I did bust out my copy of Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic (everyone should have a copy of Traffic) and find the chapter on underestimating risk (pages 272-274 in the 2008 hardcover edition):

Psychologists have argued that our fears tend to be amplified by “dread” and “novelty.” A bioterrorism attack is a new threat that we can dread because it seems beyond our control. People have been dying in cars, on the other hand, for more than a century, often by factors presumably within their control. We also seem to think things are somehow less risky when we can feel a personal benefit they provide (like cars) than when we cannot (like nuclear power)…. Driving is voluntary, it’s in our control, and there’s a reward. And so we fail to recognize the real danger cars present….

We have deemed the rewards of mobility worth the risk. The fact that we’re at the wheel skews our view. Not only do we think we’re better than the average driver—that “optimistic bias” again—but studies show that we think we’re less likely than the average driver to be involved in a crash. The feeling of control lowers our sense of risk. What’s beyond our control comes to seem riskier, even though it is “human factors,” not malfunctioning vehicles, faulty roads, or the weather, that are responsible for an estimated 90 percent of crashes.

Vanderbilt does devote some time earlier in that chapter to differences in car-crash risk by sex (namely: women were more likely to crash in general, but men were more likely to drink and then drive, and more likely for the crash to be fatal) but doesn’t break out the specific question of whether or not our mental risk equation changes when our kids are in the car. I suspect it does in some ways, such as driving less aggressively, but less in others, in that we’re not uprooting our lives to live in places where driving is less necessary.

I would add a couple more points:

  • The blogger I mentioned above has three kids. This is pure off-the-cuff speculation on my part, and not something I can claim to have studied with any real thoughtfulness, but my best guess is that public-transport-dependent life becomes considerably more difficult once you have more kids than you have hands. I may be underestimating the ease of life with three or more kids in urban neighborhoods where everything you need is within walking distance (I’m thinking specifically now of Hasidic parents in Brooklyn). But that isn’t an option for most of the United States, leaving families dependent on cars, and so they may mentally downplay the risk associated with cars out of necessity.

  • Car-crash risk isn’t evenly distributed. Vanderbilt discusses this, too: in particular, it’s higher in rural areas, and higher for older cars. A 2017 study of crashes between 2010 and 2014 that resulted in the deaths of children found that the average age of the car involved was 9.4 years. It may be that careless hypocritical suburban parents like me aren’t so much being careless and hypocritical of the risk to our kids, since we can afford the newer cars with the greater built-in safety features. Rather, we’re offloading car-crash risk to poorer drivers and their children.

  • It might be—might—that the daily lives of the people who drive larger conversations of what we should and should not be afraid of are not as impacted by cars. The 2017 Politico piece on media job clustering illustrates how many media and writing jobs (both print and online) are in or near New York City, and having been a journalist living in New York City, I’m going to go ahead and venture that not many of those journalists want to deal with the hassle of owning a car even if they can afford one. I’m not sure that argument really holds, though. It’s not as if those non-car-owning journalists would downplay car risk because they like cars; quite the opposite. (See, for example, “Was the Automotive Era a Terrible Mistake?” for the New Yorker by Nathan Heller, a self-confessed non-driver. Heller doesn’t answer the question outright, but, breaking Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, he seems to lean towards yes.)

Thinking about this question does illustrate how hard it will be to wean people off their car dependency. We wealthy parents—the ones with the greatest resources to tap, and thus the ones who should have the easiest time changing our behavior—are supposedly so protective of our kids, being helicopters and snowplows and snowflakes around them; and yet all the while we drive them to school, we drive them to after-school activities, we drive them to friends’ houses, we drive them to visit grandparents. You can hate cars. You can hate cars with a well-documented, evidence-based passion. You can hate what cars do to cities, to the earth, to pedestrians and cyclists, to trees, to animals—you can make a very, very good case for hating cars. And people have. And you can make every version of that case to us, up to and including “You are putting your children in more danger than you realize, and it will be far more your fault if something happens to them while you’re driving, than it would have been if they’d been shot by a random psycho or colonized by a random clump of cells.” And you’d be right. And we don’t budge. And what then?