When Pricing Saves Lives

The Unthinkable author Amanda Ripley points to an interesting story about child safety in air travel. In the 1990’s, a call went out for the F.A.A. to stop letting air-traveling parents carry young children in their laps, making them buy a ticket for their children instead, so that every person could wear a seatbelt. The F.A.A. refused, saying that the cost of an extra ticket could force parents to travel by car instead. Car crashes are the leading cause of death for children. On the other hand, the problem of child safety in air travel, the F.A.A. said, “barely exists.” Yet another example of how terrible we are at assessing risk, especially when it comes to our children. [%comments]

Robot Mistake

Is there a rational arguement against requiring the child to be strapped to the parent? The parent has a seat belt, the child is in a front carrier?

This to me seem to avoid the problem of physically being unable to hold on to the child.


@Robot - i nominate you to test flying with a 1, 2, or 3 year-old strapped on for a cross country flight.


Someone recently told me that most airplane accidents happen while still on the runway when a car seat/seatbelt are most necessary--worse than a car accident. In any case, I can't imagine my kids on my lap during any kind of an airline accident regardless of the odds of an airplane accident.


Yes, but how excellent we are at over-regulating each other.

David Chowes, New York City

The response to your blog is simple . . .

The overwhelming majority of people are ignorant of the scientific method -- thus, probability and risk.


We had to do this recently with our newborn. I am not much good on flights so the missus held our son against her for the whole flight. During takeoff, I glanced over to see my stoic easy flying wife holding our sleeping son. It is surreal but I believe there is no common car seat size (bulk and mass) that airlines would be able to make all seats capable of holding.

science minded

I guess the question is how to assess risk realistically when it comes to flying or driving. It is true that there is a side to risk i.e., of uncertainty that is inescapable. But I like to think that there are ways to keep it down to a minimum.

ND Grad

Watch the movie "Fearless" then tell me you still want to strap your sub-two-year-old onto your lap. I watched that movie and always bought seats for the kids...

Robert D

This is based on nothing approaching science, but it seems to me that the main difference between car crashes and plane crashes is that the former almost always comes without warning. A plane crash, on the other hand, *probably* will come after, at the very least, an announcement from the pilot. Bottom line, you may in fact have time to place your lab child in an open seat if available, or to adjust your seat belt to secure the child to your own lap. Do people do this? I doubt it.

@ Oscar - I think it's reasonable to think you wouldn't have to have the 1, 2 or 3 year old strapped to you for the entire flight.

Need to rethink child safety

Airlines should be required to make seats and seatbelts adjustable to fit small children. I travelled recently cross country with a 5 and 2 year old. They both had their own seats and we brought the 2 years olds car seat on board and strapped him in. He was extremely uncomfortable because he couldn't stretch his legs in front. He would have sat in the airplane seat if it had straps to accomodate his size. I dont plan on flying until he is 5, the only reason we went anywhere the last time was for a family wedding. Given the security restrictions, it is extremely difficult and expensive for parents of young children to travel anywhere. Also, how about requiring auto mfrs. to make seat belts adjustable for small children too, it doesn't make sense for us to have to purchase infant, then toddler, then child booster seats. If you have multiple cars and more than one child, you can end up with 6 - 9 different seats!


Eric M. Jones

Many have missed the main reason for seatbelts in airplanes. Airplanes don't crash very often, and in a serious crash, the seatbelt usually won't help. But airplanes frequently encounter severe turbulence, and the seatbelts keep passengers from breaking their necks on the ceiling.

True, airplanes usually have some warning of a crash landing, but turbulence often happens without warning. So keep that kid strapped in.

In cars the seatbelt has several funtions--they keep you in the car and help the airbags' functionality. Prior to airbags they kept one's face off the dash or head from going through the windshield. None of this is relevant in airplanes.

Stop the child safety racket

The child safety industry has all of us in a bind and noone dares oppose them. In calif kids need to be in special kids till they are 6. I am sure if the safety nazi's had their way kids would be kept wierd and cruel contraptions till they are adults. Everyone would need to buy a new $100 careseat each yr. All seats would be programmed for a spoecific kid-so that no resale or reuse by another sibming is possibe etc. If you think this rant crazy-its not-its based on so cvalled safety giudelines issued today. Keep them out of the planes-thanks a lot. They have messed up car drives enough.

Young children do not do well in carseats. The change in cabin pressures and all other environamental irritants are best resolved when they are held in a comforting embrace. Yes that does not save them in a crash situation but lilaws need to be built around the average-not outlier situations.


@Robert - Not only is strapping your child to your chest not required, it is not allowed.
On a recent flight we strapped our 8th month old into a chest carrier (knowing that it is impossible to hold onto a child during a crash), just before take off the flight attendant came back and told us we needed to take the child out of the carrier (especially annoying because our baby was asleep at the time). Babies are not allowed to be strapped to a parent during takeoff and landing. I'd love to know the logic behind this. Anyone?


I don't think that there are many plane crashes that a seat belt will save you from. And I've never encountered turbulence so bad that I couldn't hold a small child.

Carl Bunch

Lame article.

FAA did some credible calculations and found mandatory kids in seats would have saved only 1 life and half a dozen injuries.
They presumed (I suspect correctly) that the additional cost of a seat would have meant many of those kids would have been driven to their destination, and a higher number would have been killed or injured.
The author failed to do any counter-calculations or research.
Again, pretty lame article for Freakonomics standards, I'm disappointed this was green-lit.



I think you might have misunderstood the blog post. The author wasn't trying to disprove the FAA's recommendation.


What about the people sitting next to the parent holding their small child? I had this happen to me on a transatlantic flight and the child kept encroaching on my seat. I felt boxed in and very uncomfortable.

If the parents are the only ones who have the burden of holding onto their kids, I don't care if they have to pay for an extra seat or just hold them. But when I'm paying for my seat, and the child is hanging over half of it, then I'm all for making the child have their own seat.

Jospehine T-C

When I flew in Kenya, babies got a rig made of seat belt material that attached to the parent's seat belt.


This example has been around for a long time. Richard B. McKenzie gave exactly the same example in his great book "why popcorn costs so much at the movies: and other pricing puzzles".

People have no grasp of probability... we hear x % chance of dying/losing/surviving...etc...and we assume some sort of static condition. Is it X per day, per hour. How many events per day vs. how many chances. If 1% of people die in planes vs. cars its necessary to consider the number of people who fly vs. drive.

I'm getting sick of this 30 sec soundbite society we live in.


No-one has suggested the handy child-sized space in the overhead compartment.