A notice posted at my younger son Joe's pre-school last week announced, "We need car seats for every child being driven to school outings. New Jersey now requires car seats for all children under 80 pounds."
Indeed it does. Last September, acting governor Donald DiFrancesco signed a bill "making New Jersey's child passenger protection laws (the) strongest in the nation," as his press release trumpeted. The release explained that "Starting in December, children who are under the age of eight and weigh less than 80 pounds will be required to be secured in a child passenger restraint system or booster seat in the rear seat of a motor vehicle."
The acting gov's pro-forma piece of righteous fluff (you always put a quote, no matter how phony, in a press release) proclaimed that the law "provides no exemptions and no exceptions. When it comes to our children's safety, there are no excuses."
At least the law says "and" between the two designations for age and weight. If it said "or," I'd have to put my friend Abigail Thernstrom in a safety seat. Somehow, I don't think she'd like it.
Kids hate car seats. Can anyone say "Ransom of Red Chief"? The car-seat law joins several other pieces of New Jersey idiocy related to automobiles, including a set of insurance regulations so onerous that Geico and Quotesmith.com won't do business here (we join Massachusetts in that distinction), and an auto inspection regime so cranky that any halfway friendly auto mechanic will tell you, "I know a place in Elizabeth…It'll cost about $200…" And you know what he means.
But that "and" is also problematic, the best illustration of what's wrong with this latest invitation to scofflawry. What specifically unsafe condition does it address? A child's weight, i.e., the child as object? Or a child's maturity? My younger son, Joe, an adoptee from Guatemala, stands 30 inches tall and weighs 28 pounds at age two and a half. He will not top 80 pounds till he enters his teen years. And, in fact, standard tables of height and weight for children show the 80-pound median falling at about age 10.
On the other end of the scale, when Bud was in first grade, he had a porker of a classmate who topped 80 pounds then, at age six. Who is safe, and who is not? An 80-pound pre-teen? Or an 85-pound first-grade fatty?
Acting governor DiFrancesco's announcement also touted the giveaway of 5,000 car seats to low-income families. But New Jersey has more low-income families than that, and they have more children than that. Msn.com's e-shop shows 33 booster seats, the term of art for car seats with weight specifications of 80 pounds or more. Most car seats are rated for 40-60 pounds top weight. Booster seats cost between $60 and $120. E-shop also describes such seats as "rare" -- as well they should be, no other state in the union so far requiring them. Put those costs together with inflated car prices (the inspection regime) and high insurance rates, and you place a huge local population either outside the law -- or on foot.
Think of something else. Car seats are big, bulky items, made of petroleum-based fibers and eternally non-biodegradable plastics. How do you dispose of them? Nobody wants a used safety seat. Kids eat and drink in them. Kids pee and poop and throw up on them. You want to see something really disgusting, look at the latch receptacles or the underside of a well-used car seat.
It's safe to say that the car-seat law will be enforced spottily, if at all. My wife, rushing around on typical suburban errands a few weeks ago, got a speeding ticket from our neighborhood cop. Bud was riding in the front seat (no airbags in our cars; we drive oldies). Seven years old, 63 pounds. The officer didn't even mention it.
But the law will be ignored for better reasons than sheer numskull impracticality. People know that the most effective car safety device is the one between the driver's ears. With this law, government shows its default regard for citizens. We're crash test dummies.