Child Safety, Absolute Risk, and the Prevention Paradox


  • Peter H. Schwartz


Imagine you fly home from vacation with your one-and-a-half-year-old son who is traveling for free as a “lap child.” In the airport parking lot, you put him into his forward-facing car seat, where he sits much more contentedly than he did in the rear-facing one that was mandatory until his first birthday. After he falls asleep on the way home, you transfer him to his crib without waking him, lowering the side rail so you can lift him in more easily.

Many parts of this idyllic parenting picture are deemed unacceptably risky according to recent child safety proposals. While these proposals all aim to improve child safety, their possible impact is unclear because there has been little discussion of the absolute risk and risk reduction involved in each. And while precise figures are lacking, rough estimates indicate that the magnitudes are quite small. I will argue that this risk and benefit data raises important questions about the proposals, including whether parents might reasonably believe that the small absolute risk reduction offered by the proposed changes does not justify the attendant burdens. This possibility—termed the “prevention paradox” in other contexts—highlights ethical and theoretical challenges in this area of public health.