America’s roads have suddenly become dangerous places for America’s children. At least, that’s what’s suggested by a flurry of viral stories involving kids and cars.
In May, an inebriated Florida couple made news when they took their granddaughter for a joy ride, pulling her behind their SUV in a toy car. Then came the story of an Indiana dad, arrested after strapping his four children to the car hood to get them home from a quick liquor store stop. Next, it was the stoned Arizona mother who secured her weeks-old baby in its car seat, popped the seat on top of her vehicle, and drove off. The latest item grew out of a snapshot, taken by a Colorado police officer, of a diapered toddler restrained only by a seat belt while his child safety seat, buckled in next to him, cradled a can of gas.
While the nation may be experiencing a statistical rise in stupidity, substance abuse, or child neglect, more likely we’re just enjoying better access, through cable news and social media, to tales of bad parenting, tales we can take perverse pleasure in consuming and sharing. It’s simple and satisfying to stand in judgment of these “horrible parents” whose choices were so obviously wrong. Here are selfish people who put loved ones into terrible danger, something we would never do. Their evil, then, becomes our good.
Why, though, would we need these object lessons to highlight our own good parenting? Perhaps such high-contrast, black and white stories help quell the anxiety of transporting our children through the problematic gray area that is modern American car culture.
Cars — equipped with safety seats or not, piloted by sober drivers or not — present real danger to kids. Despite improved auto and traffic safety, they remain the number one killer of young people aged 5-34. Yet many new parents relocate to car-dependent suburbs, and many towns resist expanded transit lines or walking and biking paths, theoretically to protect their families from crime. Feeling children are safer in remote communities, these parents end up driving them everywhere, often to school, despite the fact that they would be about 20 times safer taking the bus. Seeking to protect them from the horrors of climate (but not climate change), moms and dads drive their young ones to school in inclement weather or idle at bus stops to shuttle them, warm and dry, a short block home.