How car seat laws made it harder to start a family

Well-meaning regulations about child safety may have also raised the barrier to entry for starting a family.

One of my earliest memories is driving around Provo with my mom. I was only 2 years old, but I can still remember the swish of the windshield wipers in the rain, and her voice as she softly assured me that, no, the water wouldn’t fill up our Datsun.

I was reflecting on this memory recently while talking to my own daughter as we drove around Salt Lake. Or I guess I should say screaming to my daughter, because she was sitting in the back of our van and neither of us could hear anything the other was saying.

What, I wondered as my daughter and I gave up on communicating, had changed? Why was my conversation with my mom so pleasant, but my experience with my daughter so frustrating?

And then it hit me: As a child way back in the 1980s, I was sitting in the front seat of our little car. But my daughter was strapped into a car seat way in the back of the van.

These two experiences highlight a massive, but sometimes overlooked, shift that has taken place over the last 40 years, as laws requiring car seats gradually became universal and then later became ever more expansive. In many ways, this shift is a triumph. Kids today are far safer than they once were when riding around in cars. That’s fantastic. 

But these gains have not come without tradeoffs. Not only does childhood today look very different from what it once was, well-meaning regulations about child safety have also inadvertently raised the barrier to entry for starting a family. They’ve made it more expensive — sometimes by a little, often by a lot — to have kids.

The origin of today’s car seat laws goes all the way back to research and advocacy done in the 1960s. By 1978, Tennessee became the first state to pass a law requiring car seats for infants and small kids. By the mid-1980s, every state had a car seat law on the books. 

These first laws were bare-bones by today’s standards. But by the 2000s, new research and federal money helped push states to adopt laws requiring car seats or boosters for kids up to 8 years old, or those meeting certain height and weight requirements.

As a child way back in the 1980s, I was sitting in the front seat of our little car. But my daughter was strapped into a car seat way in the back of the van.

The result is that car seat laws have never been more expansive. In California, the most populous state in the U.S., most kids under the age of 2 are required to ride in rear-facing car seats. Older children can move to a forward-facing seat, and when they grow out of that can move to a booster seat. But they have to stay in the booster until they turn 8. 

Utah law is similar, mandating rear-facing seats for most kids (minus those who weigh over 30 pounds) until “at least 2 years of age,” followed by forward-facing seats until the age of 4 or until they weigh 40 pounds. Utah kids can then start using a booster seat, but have to keep using it until “the seat belt fits correctly and until the child is 4-foot-9.”

For the most part, these laws have worked. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that child deaths from car crashes dropped 43% between 2002 and 2011 — which was also the period in which the scope of car seat laws was expanding. And the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration found that child restraints saved 6,567 lives between 1975 and 2002. 

It’s tempting to see those numbers and call it a day. Car seats made kids safer and laws made car seats more ubiquitous.

But at the same time that car seat laws were expanding across the U.S. another curious trend was happening: Americans were shifting en masse to bigger and bigger cars.

In 1975, sedans and wagons represented 80% of the new vehicle market in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But by 2013, they had fallen to 50%. And last year, sedans and wagons made up just 31% of the new vehicle market. Smaller cars are losing so much ground Ford doesn’t even make a sedan anymore.

And in place of smaller cars, Americans are buying larger vehicles such as SUVs. 

Taste and personal preference might account for some of the shift toward bigger vehicles. But for growing families, another explanation is that car seat laws act as a kind of de facto requirement to also get a bigger ride.

I learned this firsthand as my own family grew. When my first daughter was born, my wife and I had a single car, a Honda Accord. But when our third child was born earlier this year, we were disappointed to discover that three car seats could only sort of fit in the Accord’s back seat. We could make it work, but it required uninstalling multiple car seats every time we drove somewhere so we could access the seatbelts. And then we had to slam the doors so they’d squeeze the car seats together.

There are plenty of people who make this kind of arrangement work. But for anyone who has a choice, the obvious response is to get a bigger vehicle.

The problem is that bigger vehicles are really expensive. A 2023 Honda Odyssey, for instance, currently has an MSRP of more than $37,000, though Ken Garff’s website doesn’t currently have any options for less than $40,000. They don’t have a single used Honda minivan listed. An SUV or a minivan from another manufacturer — if you can even find one amid the current vehicle shortage — will run at least as much.

What this means is that on top of the already high price of having kids — the average cost of a complication-free birth in Utah was more than $11,000 in 2020 — families with more than two kids also have to pay at least $40,000 just to get around. That’s almost 50% more than the typical down payment on a house. 

We mostly all accept this as the way of the world — how many families do you know who don’t drive an SUV or van — but it wasn’t always this way. A family of six in the 1970s could have piled into a sedan with a front bench seat. They would have been less safe than a family today in a Honda Odyssey, but the price tag for having the family in the first place would have been much lower. And unlike housing, where a family is free to have kids share rooms, for example, you can’t legally squeeze more people into a car when every kid needs to be in a car seat. Transportation is consequently a more inflexible cost for growing families than even housing. 

The costs can add up even for families who don’t opt for big cars. When I was a kid in the 1980s, my family passed a single car seat down from kid to kid. I was 6 when the fourth child in our family was born, and we still only had a single car seat for all of us. 

There are plenty of people who are going to look at the massive costs of transportation for families, add it to the other costs of having kids, and decide they’ve been priced out of having a family.

Today, all four of us would have needed our own car seat or booster, and four car seats aren’t cheap. As of the time of this writing, the least expensive non-booster car seat listed on Target’s website cost $89.99. Most of the seats were priced well above $100, and the most expensive option topped out at about $550. That’s a big range, but of course there’s a huge amount of pressure on parents to do the thing that is (or seems to be) the most safe. In other words, plenty of parents are going to feel like they have to buy the absolute most expensive seat or risk feeling guilty for not splurging on their kids’ safety. 

Hundreds or thousands of dollars is less than the cost of a new car. But it’s also not an insubstantial amount — especially for young parents living on meager wages. My own parents were BYU students when my sister and I were born, for example. Having to spend $200 on two car seats — or whatever the inflation-adjusted price is — would have been a major financial burden. 

In this context, some people are likely to decide they can’t afford to have kids. Recent years have seen a deluge of headlines and research about how millennials are waiting to start families because doing so is expensive. Obviously, car seats aren’t the whole story there, but they are part of it because they pile more expenses onto would-be parents. 

I can speak again from personal experience here. My wife and I waited until our mid-30s to have kids thanks largely to the costs, and our vehicle situation in particular was a major consideration as we weighed having a third kid. We were extremely fortunate that the numbers penciled in — we ultimately bought a van from a family member — but that’s not the case for everyone. There are plenty of people who are going to look at the massive costs of transportation for families, add it to the other costs of having kids, and decide they’ve been priced out of having a family. 

So what can we do about all of this?

Probably the easiest option would be to simply roll back the rules so kids can graduate out of car seats sooner. But this option raises tough philosophical questions: How much more risk are we willing to tolerate? What’s the right balance between mandatory safety measures, personal choice, and the pursuit of making family life more affordable? 

I don’t know the answer, but there are useful analogies. Utah, for instance, doesn’t have a law specify at what age a child can sit in the front seat. The state also doesn’t require motorcycle helmets. And of course there has been a robust debate about mask mandates during the coronavirus pandemic.

The point is that as a society we have experience balancing the costs and benefits of various safety measures, and sometimes we decide that it’s better to let people take risks. When it comes to car seats, the trend has marched steadily away from personal choice and toward more rules. But if people feel like they have to buy $40,000 vehicles in order to expand their families, or if they’re priced out of parenthood altogether, maybe it’s time to rethink the certain laws.

This option has been floated before. Back in 2012, Southern California lawmaker Brian Nestande argued that his state’s car seat laws overstepped parental rights, and pushed to repeal a new law expanding who had to use car seats in the Golden State. The effort ultimately came to naught, but the episode highlights how legal reform is one way to tackle the issue. 

A second option is to offer government subsidies to defray the costs associated with car seats. Malaysia chose this option just a few months ago. Car seats became mandatory in the Southeast Asian country in 2020, but the cost proved to be a serious obstacle for some parents. As a result, lawmakers set aside money to help parents who couldn’t afford the safety gear. 

The U.S. doesn’t have a program like this, but government subsidies for other family-related costs such as child care is a fairly mainstream idea and draws support from organizations including the Brookings Institute. In that light, it’s not a huge stretch to suggest that transportation for families — and in this case specifically car seats — is similarly worthy of government backing.

Finally, a third option is to tackle the issue at its root, or in other words to try to make car seats less necessary in the first place. 

There’s an old bit from Jerry Seinfeld in which he jokes that people invented helmets so they could keep doing things that were “cracking our heads.” Then we went a step further and came up with helmet laws to protect brains “whose judgment is so poor it does not even try to stop the cracking of the head it’s in.”

It’s a joke, but the implication is that the smart choice is to stop doing dangerous things in the first place. 

Car seat laws are similar. They’re a tacit admission that driving is dangerous, especially at high speeds. Our response so far has been to try to make driving safer. But an alternative idea is to cut out more of the dangerous, head-cracking activity. Which is to say, make it easier to live without car seats by making it easier to live without cars. 

That’s a big ask. It means rethinking the way communities look so that things like shops and schools are closer to homes. It means giving people the option to choose housing that doesn’t include garages. It means looking at big wide streets and considering ways to make them more friendly for families who might want to get around without a car or to drive less often. It means rethinking the underlying assumptions about transportation planning, which is often focused simply on moving lots of cars quickly.

Such a world would have lots of benefits. But one of the best would be that paying huge sums of money to get a family from point A to point B, and doing so safely, wouldn’t be mandatory, like it effectively is now. 

Whatever we choose, what’s clear is that in the scramble to make driving safer, we’ve inadvertently tacked tens of thousands of dollars onto the cost of starting and growing a family. It doesn’t have to be that way, and if we want more families we’re going to have to figure out ways to lower the barrier to entry.