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What the Secretary of Transportation Has to Say About My Car Seat Research

On his blog, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood dismisses my research (see here and here) on car seats.
My favorite quote from the secretary:

“Now, if you want to slice up the data to be provocative, have at it. As a grandfather and as secretary of an agency whose number one mission is safety, I don’t have that luxury.”

Reading the Secretary’s blog post, it strikes me just how differently he is reacting to a challenge than Arne Duncan (now the Secretary of Education) did when I first told him about my work on teacher cheating when Duncan was in charge of the Chicago Public Schools. I expected Duncan to do what LaHood did: dismiss the findings, circle the wagons, etc. But Duncan surprised me. He said that all he cared about was making sure the children were learning as much as possible, and teacher cheating was getting in the way of that. He invited me into a dialogue, and we ultimately made a difference.
Here’s what LaHood might have written on his blog if the ultimate goal is really child safety:

“For a long time we’ve been relying on car seats to keep our children safe. The existing academic literature up until recently confirmed the view that car seats are very successful in that goal. But in a series of papers in peer-reviewed journals, Steven Levitt and his co-authors have challenged that view using three different data sets collected by the Department of Transportation, as well as other data sets. I’m no data expert, and I have an agency to run, so I don’t have the luxury of analyzing the data myself. But I am a grandfather and my agency’s number one mission is safety, so I’ve asked the researchers in my agency to do the following:

  1. Take a close look at the data sets we collect here in my agency, which are the basis for Levitt’s work. Is it really the case that in these data there is little or no evidence that car seats outperform adult seat belts in protecting children ages 2 and up? Our benchmark for measuring the effectiveness of car seats has always been versus children who are unrestrained. Maybe we need to rethink this going forward?
  2. Demand that the physicians at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who have repeatedly found that car seats work, make their data publicly available. It is my understanding that these physicians have refused to share their data with Levitt, but in the interest of getting to the truth, other researchers should have the chance to review what they have done.
  3. Carry out a series of tests using crash-test dummies to determine whether adult seat belts do indeed pass all government crash-test requirements. In SuperFreakonomics, Levitt and Dubner report on their findings with a very small sample of tests; we need much more evidence on the data.
  4. Try to understand why, even after 30 years, the great majority of car seats are still not properly installed. After all this time, can we really blame it on the parents, or should the blame be put elsewhere?
  5. After exploring all these issues, let’s figure out the truth, and let’s use it to guide public policy.

And if Secretary LaHood has any interest in pursuing any of these avenues, I stand at the ready to offer whatever help that I can.