Rereading Super Freakonomics over the weekend reminded me of yet another story of government getting in the way to stop innovation.
As seatbelts became more common in cars, people realized that they just didn’t fit children particularly well. Sometimes they could even be dangerous for kids. So, the booster seat was invented. A great idea for its time. Today, we take the booster seat for granted as the only option for child safety. But, does that really make sense?
About half of passengers riding in the back seat are children. Is an additional device that needs to be purchased separately really the best solution? A device that has to be removed when adults sit in the back? Why not have adjustable seat belts that just fit the child better? Or, why not another innovation that no one has even thought of yet?
Well, once the car seat was invented, and everyone agreed it was awesome, every state passed a law requiring child booster seats for kids riding in the back. Now, if you’re a car manufacturer, not only do you have to invent the perfect seat belt to keep children safe—you also have to get 50 state governments to consider and change their booster seat laws to make your product legal to use. Does that sound like something you want to take on?
Even if it were blatantly obvious that your solution was better, parents would be breaking the law if they used it without a booster seat. Since manufacturers aren’t going to invest in manufacturing a product that’s currently illegal, they would have to change 50 sets of laws first.
Certainly, the booster seat law had good intentions, and has likely saved some lives. But, the vast majority of parents want their kids to live. They would use booster seats to protect them anyway. (And the parents that don’t care about the safety of their children--also don’t care about violating child safety laws.)
All of this puts car manufacturers in an impossible position. If they attempted to lobby to change the laws, some group would claim that their invention wasn't as safe as the booster seats, true or not. Strike one. And then they would have to deal with the booster seat company lobbyists. Strike 2. Not to mention, all of the favors they would have to do: “Perhaps if you built your new plant in my district, I could help the process along.” Strike 3.
After all of that, it’s simply not worth the effort. So, booster seats will exist forever and ever, amen. Thanks government!