"Winter coats posing dangers to children in car seats."
"The winter coat mistake that can endanger your child."
"Could your child's winter coat KILL THEM?"
These headlines are reacting to this video, which originally appeared on the Today Show last year and is making the rounds again now that winter is coming. At the start of the video, Jeff Rossen narrates a crash test in which a child-sized dummy comes loose from a zipped puffy coat and lands head-down, with its body halfway out of the seat. The video cuts to Rossen showing Sue Auriemma of Kids and Cars how he buckles his three-year-old Blake into his car seat. Auriemma asks Rossen to take Blake out of the car seat, remove his coat, and put him back in. The straps, which seemed tight only a moment before, are now inches too loose. Rossen then visits a car testing lab at the University of Michigan, where he narrates two crash tests with a child dummy in a pink puffy coat. Calling the dummy "she" as it is flung from a pink puffy coat drives the point home: this could be your child. Rossen then talks with Miriam Manary, who runs the testing facility, who demonstrates how children should be buckled into car seats. Rossen narrates as a dummy, now without a puffy coat, passes the crash test. The video closes on Blake, who, as Auriemma has instructed, is now wearing his puffy coat backwards to stay warm while staying safe.
This video is dangerous.
I am not arguing that it's wrong to take children's coats off before putting them into car seats (although Angela Fritz makes a good case for why parents in rural areas known for extreme cold might want to keep kids' coats on). I make no argument about whether puffy coats are safe or unsafe, because there does not appear to be much data in either direction. Nor am I discrediting Kids and Cars, an organization that informs the public on non-traffic vehicle accidents, advocates for policy changes to make cars safer, and supports parents and others who experience guilt over children injured by cars. I am arguing that this video is dangerous for the kind of bad science it promotes and the fear-based thinking it encourages. The Today Show's "crash test" offers one poorly-conducted informal test of an improperly-restrained dummy which flew out of its coat. That test has resulted in behavioral changes not warranted by the evidence.
The first point Rossen and his collaborators are trying to make clear is that when a child is wearing a bulky coat, the carseat harness is significantly looser than it would be were the child not wearing the coat. The video segment they use to make this point, however, contains other serious flaws that detract from that point. First, when Rossen puts his son Blake into the car, neither the shoulder straps nor the chest strap are in the correct position, as most car seat manuals indicate that the shoulder straps should be at or above the shoulders in forward-facing car seats and that the chest strap be over the chest (that is, at armpit level).
Tugging down on the harness, Rossen says "And this feels snug to me." It's clear from the video that his child is not actually securely fastened into the seat, which is perhaps why Auriemma says "It looks like it's tight, but it's actually loose." She may just be setting up the next part of the segment (showing how loose the child's car seat straps are with the coat off), but her statement applies to Blake as well.
The dummy in the first two crash tests is likewise improperly secured into its carseat, with the shoulder straps off to the outside of the shoulders and with the chest clip close to stomach level. Rossen again pulls down on the harness to let the viewers know that it is secure, which, again, is not the standard by which carseat harness tightness is supposed to be measured.
"Look at this," Rossen says, pointing to the dummy flung half out of its seat. "I mean, it's so scary to see up close."
When the segment turns to Miriam Manary, we're finally treated to some sound carseat guidelines. The harnesses in her test are properly adjusted, and adhere to the pinch test: that is, if she can pinch the shoulder strap between her fingers, it's too loose. Manary explains where the chest clip should be fastened, to which Rossen responds "Armpit level. That's an interesting tip," before questioning Manary about puffy coats. Fastening the chest clip at armpit level is not "an interesting tip," but in fact the proper positioning for most carseat harnesses.
Now, it's possible that the dummy and the Rossen's adorable son are improperly strapped into carseats because of their puffy coats. This raises an important question for car seat safety researchers to investigate. But the Today Show segment's conclusion was based on a single, poorly-conducted test that has produced a blizzard of articles about removing coats before putting children in car seats, and has provided lots of opportunities for manufacturers of special over-the-harness coats. Any parents wanting to research these claims for themselves are going to have trouble doing so, as the Today piece has been picked up by other media outlets nationwide. The video has gone viral multiple times over, and its claim is now distributed as fact.
It's understandable that parents would want to stop putting coats on their children after watching this video or hearing its advice repeated from their friends, neighbors, and pediatricians. And perhaps additional study will warrant this degree of caution. Additional crash tests, run under perfect and imperfect use, would be useful evidence, as would data on U.S. crash fatalities involving children wearing puffy coats at the time of collision.
But even if the evidence does eventually side against the puffy coat, the larger problem of fear-based parenting is not limited to a single Today Show segment about puffy coats and carseats. This sort of fear-mongering exists in virtually all aspects of modern parenting, starting with what they're allowed to wear in cribs and extending through adulthood. Cautious parenting is admirable. Fear-based parenting is slowly draining spontaneity and joy out of our lives. Where are the news segments on that?