Human-factors engineering, baby-seat division

If 15 to 25 infants die in parked cars every year because their parents forgot there was someone in the baby carseat, than how about redesigning baby carseats?

Matt Yglesias asks a good question: when a child dies of hyperthermia in a parked car because a parent simply forgot the child was there and left it behind, what’s the point of putting the bereaved parent through a manslaughter trial? Deterrence? Incapacitation? Retribution? Norm reinforcement? None of the usual arguments for punishment seems to add up. It’s a horrible error, but that’s all it is: an error. That’s the reason they put erasers on pencils and “delete” keys on keyboards.

Which suggests a different question: if in fact these things happen 15 to 25 times every year, how hard would it be to design a car seat that sets off an alarm after five minutes whenever:

1. The car is not running.

2. The doors are closed.

3. The child-seat safety belt is engaged.

Not very hard, I guess.

Which in a twisted way answers Matt’s original question: One reason to have a trial is to bring this to public attention. Not a good enough, reason, I’d say. Still, did you know how often this happened? I sure didn’t.

Update: Such a unit is available for $40; it works by sensing the child’s weight and plays a lullaby if the car is stopped with a child in the carseat. Other designs have been invented but not marketed; it’s not clear how big the market is; and there are liability issues. Last year, the auto manufacturers beat back a Congressional attempt to require such devices.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: