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FREAKONOMICS Fallacy: An Economist or a Pediatrician – Who Would You Trust To Keep Your Child Safe?

Posted in: Response to Media

Economists vs Pediatricians

Who is really looking out for your child’s safety?


Unfortunately, many parents have mistakenly put their trust in the economists Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner, co-authors of the popular book Freakonomics, rather than following the advice of pediatricians and the medical community when it comes to protecting their children in the car.  In 2005 the Freakonomics authors wrote an article in the NYTimes Magazine entitled “The Seat-Belt Solution” which came to the sensational conclusion that “there is no evidence that car seats do a better job than seat belts in saving the lives of children older than 2.” But fatalities are just the tip of the iceberg; for every death there are 19 injuries requiring hospitalization (some leading to permanent disability) and 300 requiring medical attention.


While Dubner & Levitt have since “softened” their stance to say that “car seats are a little better…” than seat belts and advised parents “don’t throw out the car seats” The Car Seat Ladies feel like the damage has been done – and we want to try and undo it by providing you with the whole story. More people heard and remember the sensational message than Freakonomics’ weak efforts to bring their message more in line with what we know to be best practice. Therefore, we at The Car Seat Lady want to provide you with the evidence so that you can come to your own conclusions and make the best decisions regarding your child’s safety. As an interesting side note, both Dubner & Levitt admit to using car seats and boosters for their own children beyond the age of 2; they are willing to endanger the lives of other people’s children to sell their books, but aren’t willing to make their own children be the guinea pigs for their own misguided hypothesis.


Dr Dennis Durbin & Dr Flaura Winston are pediatricians at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and co-principal investigators for the Partners for Child Passenger Safety study, which is the largest study ever done of children in crashes. Drs Durbin & Winston both have public health degrees (which involves many courses in statistics). Dr. Winston also has a PhD in engineering. Data from this ongoing study has led to the publication of dozens of papers in some of the most highly regarded peer-reviewed medical journals including JAMA, Pediatrics, Archives of Pediatrics, Journal of Trauma, and Injury Prevention. 


Drs Durbin & Winston wrote a letter to the editor in response to the 2005 NYTimes article.   

Drs Durbin & Winston followed up this letter with an study published in the June 2006 issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. This study was designed in direct response to Freakonomics’ conclusion that seat belts are equally effective as car seats/boosters at preventing death for kids 2-6 years of age.  Drs Durbin & Winston’s study found that children who were using child restraints were 28 percent less likely to be killed in a crash than children who were wearing seat belts alone – or as Dr. Durbin explained “for every 100 children who were killed in a crash wearing only a seatbelt, 28 of them would have survived if they’d
been in a car seat or booster seat.”  

In August 2008 Dubner & Levitt published their study concluding that seat belts are equally effective as child restraints for kids 2-6 in the journal Economic Inquiry.  A quick survey of the archives of this journal uncovers such scientifically rigorous and groundbreaking studies as “Secret Santa Reveals the Secret Side of Giving” and “The Influence of Social Forces: Evidence from the Behavior of Football Referees“.

The data refuting the Freakonomics conclusion keeps coming in.  A 2009 article from the Partners for Child Passenger Safety study published in Pediatrics showed that 4-8 year olds using boosters seats were 55% less likely to be injured in a crash than 4-8 year olds wearing seat belts alone – or said another way, for every 100 children injured in a crash wearing only a seat belt, 55 of them would have been injury-free if they’d been in a booster seat. 

The Car Seat Lady feels that car seats (with a 5 point harness) are the best protection for kids until they are at least 4 years old AND at least 40 pounds (but with many seats offering the option of using the 5-point harness beyond 40 pounds we are in full support of this) – and boosters are the best protection for school age children until the vehicle’s seat belt fits them properly without the booster (i.e. when they can pass the 5-step test). 

7 Responses to “FREAKONOMICS Fallacy: An Economist or a Pediatrician – Who Would You Trust To Keep Your Child Safe?”

  1. MWenger says:

    >Turns out, I would trust an economist. If their analysis is sound, why wouldn't you?Fundamentally, Levitt's methodology is the deciding factor. All of the medical studies suffer from the same flaws: using indirect data sources, such as self-reports.The benefit of Levitt's study is that it looks at car seats as they are ACTUALLY used in "the wild", from on-the-scene data collection, no post-hoc problems or memories to cloud the results.Given the title and subject of your blog, I expect you to be skeptical, however, that doesn't excuse your generous use of red herring fallacies of every type rather than addressing the actual argument.Given the fact that most car seats are installed improperly, and the data that demonstrates that seat belts work almost as well for kids over 2 years old, the conclusion is clear: no additional equipment = no chance of installing it improperly. In addition, people could keep their hard earned money in their pockets instead of buying an extra device for their car.The best part is: these data include instances where car seats would have been installed improperly, AND the instances where the seat belt would have been worn incorrectly!Regarding the fact that Levitt and Dubner both admit that they use car seats…of course they do, it's the law.The question is, given the fact that noone has actually refuted Levitt's results, even though he has offered the data to others to analyze (and has now analyzed HUGE national sets of data), why are people so hostile? If it is correct, we should be happy that we have been enlightened. We can save our kids, and our money.

  2. Anonymous says:

    >I wonder if those economists were comparing the safety of a seat belt with a Forward Facing or a Rear Facing seat.Because research shows kids under 2 are 75 percent less likely to suffer serious or fatal injuries if they're in rear-facing seats.What do they data to say to that?

  3. Paul says:

    Carseat Lady,

    Where do you receive your funding? Any industry trade groups?

  4. RLewis says:

    Turns out I trust research. Real research h that has been tested time and time again resulting in the same results. Carseats do save lives. Luckily my pediatrician does recommend a minimum of rear facing until 2 however some do not and encourage forward facing as soon as possible. I am a scientist and I believe in doing the research myself to be the best informed I can be. My children will be rear facing until 4 or they outgrow the seats and I am forced to turn them around.
    I encourage you all to dig into peer-reviewed research from accredited journals if you want the real facts.
    Carseats save lives!!!!

  5. Elizabeth says:

    While it *may* be possible that an improperly installed car seat may not be any more effective than a seat belt alone, and that probably accounts for at least some of the Freakanomics data, that is a SOLVABLE problem.

    Ditching the car seat is one “solution,” but I would argue that a much better solution would be to meet with a child passenger safety technician to make sure your car seat is being used in a manner that would keep your child as safe as possible.

    “Other people don’t use car seats correctly, so I won’t use one at all” is a rather absurd conclusion, don’t you think?

  6. Matt says:

    Here’s a direct quote from a research article that I feel explains the conclusion that The Car Seat Lady argues for:

    “Using only data from FARS to assess child restraint system effectiveness in reducing risk for death in passenger vehicle crashes implicitly assumes that surviving children in fatal accidents have restraint practices that are similar to those of children in other serious crashes that do not result in fatalities. If child restraint systems are highly effective in reducing risk for death relative to seat belts, children in crashes who survived because they were restrained in a child restraint system rather than a seat belt will not be included in the FARS database unless someone else in the crash died. This will lead to a potential underrepresentation of child restraint system use among surviving children and a consequent underestimation of the effectiveness of child restraint systems in reducing risk for fatal injury if only FARS data are used.”

    http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/205063

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